Autism and Extreme Picky Eating: Four Signs

Picky eating is not uncommon in children or even in adults! Traditional picky eating can be about personal preference, growing in and out of stages, and is generally a harmless part of natural development. But many parents with autistic children know just how far picky eating can stretch those limits.


When a child’s eating interferes with their growth and development, it’s cause for concern. Growing bodies need the right amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals to thrive and remain healthy. Today, we’re looking at the difference between picky eating, which is common and natural, and extremely picky eating, which requires a strategy.


What is Extreme Picky Eating?

As a parent, you’re probably aware that children on the spectrum tend to have feeding challenges. Research shows that anywhere from 50-89% of kids on the autism spectrum have more severe eating challenges than most children. This pickiness is sometimes called “selective eating.” And if you’re familiar with it, you know how frustrating it can be.


One of the primary concerns with selective eating is that the child consumes fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than the average child. As a result, the extremely picker eater might have vitamin or mineral deficiency, experience malnutrition, or be underweight. 


Doctors point out that while fruit or vegetables might taste different each time depending on preparation or variety, processed food like crackers or chips always taste the same. This consistency appeals to autistic children, but it doesn’t make for a healthy diet. 


Let’s look at some of the indicators of extremely picky eating. 

Rejects Entire Food Groups


The five food groups are fruit, vegetables, grains, meat and alternatives, and dairy and alternatives. A balanced diet for adults and children generally includes a combination of all five groups.

If your child completely rejects a food group, usually fruits or vegetables, this is an indicator that they might be an extremely picky eater.

Needs to Eat Alone


Extremely picky eating isn’t just about what your child is consuming. Sometimes, they cannot even see, smell, or be around foods they don’t like. They might also have issues watching other people eat. As a result, mealtime is stressful and overwhelming, leading them to want to eat alone.

Requires Their Own Meal


If your child can never eat what you’ve prepared for the whole family but always requires their own meal, they might be an extremely picky eater. You know you're dealing with more than just traditional picky eating if you prepare two entirely different dinners because of your child’s extreme sensitivities and preferences.

Has Inflexible Routines


Traditional picky eating doesn’t usually involve rigid preferences and routines. A child might not like spinach or broccoli, but they’re open to different foods and even vegetables. On the other hand, an extremely picky eater has a lot of stress and anxiety around the predictability of their meals. They might refuse to try a new cracker brand or be unable to eat anything at a restaurant because it’s not what they’ve come to know and expect.

Tips for Autism and Extreme Picky Eating


Fortunately, you’re not alone in dealing with extremely picky eating. And there are steps you can take to help your child branch out and get the nutrients they need. 


  1. Experiment with new foods by offering your child tiny portions. A more significant amount can easily overwhelm them, but a sampling can feel manageable. Once they find an item or two they like, your child might even develop a positive attitude about trying new foods.

  2. Try serving the foods they used to enjoy - Sometimes, your child will start rejecting a food they used to eat. Don’t give up on that food, but try a different presentation or preparation instead. 

  3. Make food fun - Getting your child involved in food preparation, gardening, or picking produce is a great way to help them grow and expand. This kind of exposure lets them have positive experiences with food. 

  4. Keep exposing them to different foods - It can be tricky, but try to keep exposing your child to foods that bother them. It might be green beans on your plate or creamed corn at the center of the table, but your child must see other people enjoying food in all its many forms. 

Conclusion: Autism and Extreme Picky Eating


Living with an extremely picky eater can be challenging. But with a bit of exposure and experimentation, your child can make strides toward better nutrition and a less rigid mealtime experience. That’s good news for kids and parents everywhere!


The Sensory Scout community is a place where parents from all over the world can get together to share stories, access exclusive discounts on sensory products, and support one another with encouragement and hope. Join our Facebook Group today to connect with others, explore blogs, and much more.


And don’t miss our blog on Interoception Dysfunction, including how to identify and improve it, along with innovative sensory products that can help.

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