Understanding your picky eater

As an educator, I come across many teachers and parents who are concerned with the eating habits of their special needs child. For children with autism and other special needs, it often takes a lot of extra effort to get them to stay seated at the dinner table and to eat proper meals. Sometimes they’re just not interested in the food. Many have to be taught to stay seated at the dinner table. Kids with disabilities often have difficulty adjusting to new things, and food issues can be magnified by communication challenges.

Improving eating habits requires patience and analysis. Below are some examples of how we use applied behavior analysis in my profession to address these issues. The techniques described here are effective not only with special needs children, but with picky eaters generally.

Detective work

Let’s say you have a child who likes to eat crunchy snack foods such as potato chips or crackers. You want him to eat carrots and apples, but it’s just not happening. Instead of fighting about it, do some detective work. Observe your child eating and see if you can identify why he likes chips and crackers. Is it the texture? Is it the salty flavor? Is it because the food is a certain color? This information can help you determine what foods to try next with your child. For example, if your child likes potato chips because they are crunchy, you might start out by presenting similar crunchy food such as pretzels or tortilla chips.

Start out small

For a child who subsists on milk and mushy food, asking them to jump straight to crunchy carrots and broccoli is too big of a leap. The result is likely to be anxiety and frustration for both you and the child. Instead, you might start by asking her to try foods with similar textures — for instance, moving from soft oatmeal to yogurt. Then you can slowly start adding tiny bits of strawberries to the yogurt. Take baby steps to build tolerance and then do further detective work.

For the kid who likes potato chips, you might discover that he enjoys the barbecue-flavored kind. Build from that by giving him a taste of barbecue sauce. If he likes it, you can offer it as a dipping sauce for carrots.

Make time

Working through an eating issue will require your emotional and physical energy. As with toilet training, you have to make changes to your own routine to set your child up for success. Try to work on eating at a time when your child is hungry, but don’t try to work on it during every single meal. It can help to set aside time to work on eating before your child gets to do a favorite activity: “We’re going to practice trying different foods, and then you can play on the computer.”

Celebrate small successes

Do you ever start telling your spouse to do more chores around the house when you see them taking out the trash? Sometimes when we see someone do something we want them to do, we ask them to do more. This might have the opposite effect from what you intend. So, if your child has never eaten anything green at dinner, and they eat a single pea, reward them for that instead of asking them to eat a whole bowl of peas.

Here’s an example from my own home. My son has never cared for broccoli, but recently he surprised us by eating a tiny piece. My husband and I clapped for him, gave him a big hug, and told him we were proud. He loves it when he’s the one getting praise and attention instead of his sister, and his response was to eat another piece of broccoli. It was a huge success!

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