As a feeding specialist with over a decade of experience in the field, I get asked this question all the time. “My child is a picky eater. Does this mean that he or she has autism?” Let’s take a moment to think about that. It is a big assumption to think that because someone may have a limited diet or may have had changes to their food preferences recently, a diagnosis is in order. Furthermore, it is very scary to begin diagnosing individuals without going to the appropriate professionals to obtain that diagnosis. Oftentimes, I will hear well-meaning parents, aunts or other relatives state, “I know little Johnny was really picky with his eating and he had autism, so I am sure since your Maddie doesn’t like fries anymore, it’s likely she has autism, too.” We need to be very careful with statements like this and taking advice from people who are not qualified to do full assessments and give an appropriate diagnosis.
Below, we will examine the connections we DO know about autism and picky eating and clear up some misconceptions that many people have regarding the connection between the two.
Many children (and older teens or adults) with autism ARE selective eaters, but simply being a selective eater DOES NOT mean that you will have a diagnosis of autism. Due to the fact that many people with autism have sensory aversions, have different ways of perceiving the world, or may adapt to things in different ways, it is understandable why food may be challenging. Since food goes into one of our most sensitive areas (our mouth), it is already a challenging thing to work with. To make matters worse, think about how complex food is. Something like a cold yogurt is so completely different from a hot, wet spaghetti noodle or a crispy piece of fried chicken. Yet we need to be comfortable with all of it to be a “typical” eater.
Looking deeper into food, think about how even something like a blueberry can be hard and sour one time and soft, squishy and sweet the next. Food is very unpredictable. There really are no rules when it comes to food, making it extremely challenging to learn how to eat a wide variety of foods for a person with sensory concerns or a person needing rules in place to feel comfortable.
On the other hand, many people without a diagnosis of autism may simply not like, for example, veggies, things that are moist, or meat. This makes them appear very “picky” when it comes to eating. If they are young, they may throw a tantrum when presented with these foods, making them appear to have behavioral concerns. Putting these things together may make them appear to show signs of autism, but this cannot and should not be grounds for giving them a diagnosis of any kind. It is vital to know that only medical professionals such as developmental pediatricians or pediatric neurologists have the capability to provide a diagnosis after looking at a wide variety of factors, including social engagement, language skills, physical skills, play skills, overall development, and a full medical case history.
So what if your child is a picky eater? With or without a diagnosis of autism, there is help to make mealtimes easier! Find a professional feeding specialist who can coach you, your child, and your family and get you on the road to success. See past articles in this series for tips on what to look for to determine if your child is truly a picky eater or needs professional intervention and who to go to for help if you feel you need professional assistance. As a local feeding specialist right here in Lake Nona, I can always answer your questions and help to guide you in the right direction with your specific case.