Mealtime Tips for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorders

Parents of children with developmental disabilities or autism often encounter many obstacles when trying to provide their child with a balanced diet that they won’t reject. Parents often discover that their child has an affinity for or detests certain foods. Their food preferences often fit into one of these four categories:

  • Sweet
  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Bitter

Common challenges

It is common for children with developmental disabilities or autism to have strong feelings about consuming specific textures and temperatures. Parents often find that their child prefers either crunchy or smooth, and it is standard that their preference is that their food to
be consumed at room temperature. Smells can be a contributing factor for some individuals more than
others, which might make eating outside of the familiar home setting difficult. The look of the food can also deter children with developmental disabilities from wanting to eat it. For example, some children need their food to be separated, so different foods do not touch each other, while other children prefer foods of certain colors and not others. After they have cleaned their own p
late, many have trouble watching and waiting while others finish their food. On top of these challenges, finding foods that your child likes and complying with possible dietary restrictions can be difficult.

5 Strategies for addressing food preferences in developmental disabilities

  1. Be patient. Don’t try to introduce new foods all at once. Allow them time to get familiar with new foods. Give them the opportunity to decide when they want to try and taste them. Getting a child with developmental disabilities to try new foods has proved to work best when the child feels they are in control of their food choices.
  2. Put the new food on their plate, but do not expect them to eat it. After repeating this for a few meals or a few days, they will get used to the smell and look of this unknown food and might be more willing to try it. Another strategy is to use a Social Story and have the characters eating this new food, helping them to model the behavior.
  3. Do not add new foods to their preferred foods in an attempt to disguise the new foods. This can sometimes cause distrust and cause the child to reject foods they once liked.
  4. Try introducing a new food in between bites of familiar foods, if the child is amenable. For example, you could try feeding your child a preferred food such as mac-and-cheese, have them try a small bite of carrot, followed by another spoon of mac-and-cheese.
  5. Once they have finished their food, you can provide them with a reward or incentive such as a small handheld toy or game. This not only acts as a reward, but can also help with the social pressures of eating.

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