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Things to Remember During Healthy Eating Week – advice for supporting autistic children

It is great to see so many schools embracing Healthy Eating Week, but for autistic children and young people and their parents it can be an additionally challenging time.

Autistic children can have restricted diets, specific eating habits and routines or anxiety around food and mealtimes. For them, Healthy Eating Week can be especially hard and not enjoyable or fun! It can also be a difficult time for parents, who may feel pressure to change to eating habits, and guilty when they are not successful, but for some autistic pupils eating habits are really fixed and this change is hard.

During Healthy Eating Week it can be helpful for teachers and support staff to know:
  1. Eating some foods can be difficult for sensory reasons, the texture of a food can be experienced in a way that it can be difficult to imagine. One boy I worked with once described toast as hurting his mouth and feeling like sandpaper.
  2. Food can taste differently in various places and over different times, and this can be one of the reasons why some autistic children develop eating patterns where they stick with foods that are very predictable. Often this can be potato based food such as crisps and chips! Or why they only want a type of food from a specific brand or place.
  3. Textures, smells and taste may be off putting to any child, but the experience may be exacerbated for autistic children and young people with heightened sensory processing. For some children who are hyposensitive to taste, things like textures and smells can be overwhelming and the main thing they focus on.
  4. Understand that eating in a noisy dinner hall can present additional sensory difficulties and allow children to eat in an alternative location if this will help.
  5. Rigid routines around eating usually have a function, and this is often about feeling safe and trying to stay in control. If these routines are not harmful, consider is it really a problem? I once helped with a young person who was distraught because the staff member wanted him to eat his food in a certain way. He wanted to eat all his peas first, then all his potatoes, then his pie. The adult wanted him to have a forkful of each in turn. It does not matter! We all have things that are important to us.
During Healthy Eating Week it can be helpful for teachers and support staff to do the following:
  • Talk to parents to find out more about what foods their child struggles to eat and why.
  • Talk to other staff and agree a consistent approach. Do not respond emotionally, or with strong verbal or facial reactions.
  • Allow participation in cooking activities, for example making a smoothie without any pressure to taste. Being able to tolerate some foods in proximity is sometimes an achievement.
  • Consider that any mention of food can cause anxiety so a whole week of talking about food is a lot to cope with. Consider what opportunities the child has to engage in low stress and favoured subjects and activities.
  • Focus on other areas that build the child’s self-esteem.
  • Set realistic goals and celebrate achievements (but do not make too much fuss!)
  • Introduce any new foods slowly.
  • Have fun wherever possible. For young children, messy play with a variety of foods can be a fun way to feel safer around eating them.

Eating can be a stressful experience for autistic children and young people, who may feel overwhelmed by the smell or texture of food, as well as a busy, noisy dining environment. Remember, they are not being ‘fussy eaters’ or behaving badly and the more pressure we put on them, the less likely they are to feel safe around trying a new food.

If a child’s eating is really of concern, then it may be that medical guidance should be sought via a school nurse as well as talking to the parents about support they are receiving.

Jo Galloway
Director of Education at Liberty Academy Trust