Help! Tween with autism obsessed with food

Guidance for parents at their wit’s end from a feeding psychologist with the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network

This week’s “Food for Thought” answer is by a child psychologist and feeding expert Robert Dempster, who works within the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN), at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.

Editor’s note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

Thank you for reaching out with your question. As you may know, many children – and adults – with autism have intensely focused interests. Certainly, food can become one of these fixations – even without a history of using food as rewards.

However your son’s preoccupation with food developed, I can recommend a variety of strategies to lessen its grip. It’s great that you keep your son active. And redirecting can prove helpful, too, in the context of some broader approaches such as the following:

Establishing a clear schedule
To help limit pleading for food, I strongly suggest

1) Establishing a set schedule of meals and snacks. Most children and teens do best with three meals and two snacks

2) Creating a visual or written schedule of these times for your son, depending on how he learns best. Many children on the autism spectrum learn best with visual supports.

Learn more about visual supports and download the Autism Speaks ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports Tool Kit here.

Limiting discussions
You may also want to clarify for your son you will – and will not – discuss meals and snacks with him. For example, you might say: “Our next snack is at 3. So we will talk about what we’re having at 2:45.”  Here again a simple visual support such as a clock can help your son track the progress of time until discussions are open.

If you take this approach, I want to emphasize that it’s very important to follow through. That means you do NOT participate in discussions surrounding food choices until the time that you have set to talk about it. That means patiently ignoring further pleas.

Otherwise – if his pleas and tantrums get you to start discussing food – he may learn that escalating is the way to go when he wants to find out about his next meal or snack.

Fair warning: at the start of such a plan, it’s common for a child to actually plead more. But if you stay consistent, this will ease off and the situation will improve.

Inviting your son to discuss at set times
Another option that may work well for you son is to have a set time each day when the two of you talk about meals and snacks. This could be the night before or at the beginning of the day. The two of you can work together on the schedule and meal planning – within reason of course.

Again, it’s important to avoid further bargaining or discussions about the meals and snacks once the menu has been set.

Remember the positive feedback
At the same time, I encourage you to notice and praise when he goes a day, or even a good portion of a day, without talking about food. A good time to offer such praise is when you sit down to eat with him – rather than raising the subject of food in between meals.

You might also offer a non-food reward such as a small toy or a token on a reward chart or board that he can use to earn a larger prize. (See example below.)

Thanks again for reaching out with your question. Please let us know how you and your son are doing in the comment section below or by writing us again at GotQuestions@autismspeaks.org.


For more expert advice on autism-related feeding and eating issues, check out the “Food for Thought” archives here.


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