Picky eating is very common in autism and beyond. Don’t let that discourage you from trying diet. In fact, having a picky eater is often an important reason TO try diet.
Picky eating can be due to being addicted to very wheat and dairy they are eating–in fact, often it’s almost all they are eating. The opiate-like compounds created from the improperly digested wheat and dairy proteins causes addictive cravings for wheat and dairy foods. If your child is like most children with autism, they eat mostly wheat and dairy containing foods like: pizza, milk, bread, mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, as well as maybe a few snack foods like French fries. It’s very possible, their picky eating could be due to gluten and dairy cravings.
Additionally, “Addictions” to chemicals (e.g., MSG, artificial additives) can affect restriction to one brand or a strong preference for processed foods. MSG is known to create “excitement” in the brain by stimulating the glutamate (excitatory) receptor, making food seem to taste much better. Artificial ingredients such as artificial colors and flavors can also affect similar cravings.
Nutrient deficiencies (such as zinc) can make all foods taste bad or bland. When zinc is deficient, which is a common finding in children with autism, sense of smell is reduced and food tastes boring or unappetizing. Texture can then become an even bigger factor: imagine eating mashed potatoes if you can’t taste the potato flavor – a bland mouthful of mush.
All the previous circumstances are “biochemical reasons” for picky eating. The good news is, in these circumstances, there is often something you can do about it – when you remove the problematic foods causing the “addiction” then picky eating often improves. There are many reasons for picky eating, I’ve just described some of the biochemical ones, but there are also physical, medical, and psychological reasons for it too. In addition to considering a special diet, it’s important to see a feeding therapist if your child is a very picky eater (or “problem feeder”). More on this in my Get Started Guide: Using Food and Nutrition to Improve ADHD and Autism.
Next, get creative with taste, texture, and visual presentation. With picky eaters, texture goes a long way. Cooking to Heal contains many creative recipes with kid-friendly textures.
There are things you can do. As the addictive foods are safely removed, children often begin to eat a larger variety of foods. Very often children expand their diet with some creativity and effort in the kitchen; however, it is important to reach out to a feeding therapist if your child is very limited with food choices. (Also, a doctor and nutrition professional can help ensure they are not malnourished.)