Autism Series: Diet

by beagooddad on July 10, 2007

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autism eating

I’ll start this autism series with an easy topic for our family. Diet.

How many of your 2 to 4 year olds eat carrots, corn on the cob, cottage cheese, baked beans, spaghetti, tacos, and bagels? In our house, 1 out of 2. Pookie usually eats a wider variety of food than Geetle…and Geetle is no slouch.

We have heard about some of the difficulties that parents of autistic children have getting their kid to eat anything. We consider ourselves pretty lucky. Pookie has no food allergies to complicate planning a menu.

Here are some of the fairly strict rules that we follow at the dinner table which help create positive eating environment.

Sitting Down To Eat

We start almost every meal with the kids setting their plates, silverware and cups on the table. In addition to being a decent life skill and saving us a little work, it is also a good marker that a meal is coming.

Pookie likes things that have a definite start and finish. Several key areas of his life are made easier by working with these start and finish markers.

We also try to promote a little family cooperation by having one of them get the plates for both of them and the other get the silverware for both of them, etc. We try to encourage them to talk to each other by having them hand out colored straws to each other. They have to talk to figure out what color straw the other wants.

What Goes On The Plate

Everything. We expect the kids to eat anything that we eat. They get small portions of each food we are eating for that meal. They do not get any more of any item until they try a couple decent bites of everything. We do not custom cook and BeAGoodMom is a cooking fiend. We have eaten a wider variety of dishes than most people and the kids have learned to like some things that just amaze us.

But What About The Starving Kids In China

We do not use any tricks or gimmicks to get them to eat anything. There is just the simple rule that they have to try a little of everything before they are eligible for seconds or dessert.

We do not nag them or constantly remind them to eat. If they want to sit out this meal, better luck next time.

We have started to use a little game once in a while where we have them kiss the food on the fork, and then lick the food on the fork to get them to realize that it doesn’t taste as horrible as they might think. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We don’t worry about it. The main reason we do it is because the kids think it is funny to kiss something like pork chops or pineapple.

Words Are For Asking

When Pookie wants more milk or more catsup or anything else, he has to ask us. I don’t mean just saying “Milk” or “Give me milk.” We make him say, “Momma, can I have milk?” We also will not give him the item until he makes eye contact while asking. Food is an important part of every kids life. He is readily willing to do these things to get what he wants at the table. The practice helps with getting him to request things in other situations. He has even gotten to the point where if he really wants our attention and we are not paying attention, he will grab our heads and turn them until we are making eye contact before asking.

For a while, we were using PECS cards. During that time, he had to ask for everything using the cards. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how quickly those cards changed Pookie’s ability to communicate his desires. I’ll talk more about that later in the series. Just make a note that whatever communication aids you are currently using need to be used at the table, too. I would estimate that most 2-4 year olds spend a significant amount of their awake time eating. Those communication aids need to be a part of the mealtime routine.

Dad, Can You Hurry Up?

The number one rule at our table is that nobody leaves the table until we are all done eating.

The only exceptions are potty breaks and getting condiments or other items we forgot to bring to the table.

It encourages everybody to talk and teaches an important social skill – not disappearing as soon as you gobble down the food.

I also think it helps the kids eat better because when they sit at the table longer, they start to pick at food and often end up eating something they would have passed on otherwise.


At the end of each meal, everybody carries their dishes to the sink. Again, this is a good life skill, but it also plays an important role by giving an autistic eater a consistent marker to indicate that the meal is over. When we say, “Time to put the dishes in the sink,” Pookie knows dinner done.

Picnic Night

About once a week or so, we have picnic night. We throw a blanket out on the floor, pop in a video, and the rules go out the window.

Having a break from the structure shakes things up. They often don’t end up eating very much but they have a lot of fun nibbling during the movie.

I think having a situation and location where the rules go out the window helps remove a lot of the protests the rest of the time. They know that the no rule zone is different because the TV is on and they are eating on the floor. They have learned that is the only time and place they get eat free range like that. When we go back to the table the next meal, they know that the rules are back in place.

But What Does That Have To Do With Autism

Are you feeling cheated at this point? Are you asking what any of this has to do with autism? We are firm believers of trying to treat our autistic child as normal as possible as much as possible. We understand that he has more difficulties in some areas, but eating is not one of them so we do not treat him differently during meals. Besides working on speaking a little more pointedly, the only thing that we do that is especially beneficial for an autistic child are the routines for getting to the table and leaving the table. And those routines both started well before Pookie was diagnosed.

Pookie handles meals very well. There was a phase a couple years back where he intentionally spilled milk every night. We made him clean it up each time and he only got water the rest of the meal. Eventually the phase passed and we were back in business. Once in a great while, he will want to get down from the chair before the rest of us are done eating. We remind him that he can’t leave until we are all done and make him stay at the table, just like we do with Geetle.

I was just rereading this before posting and realized that everything I wrote makes it sound like every meal is perfect. That is not the case. The rules we have in place have put us in a position where about 80% of the meals go through with no issues or very minor ones. We only have real problems at the table when the kids are too tired or just going through a normal phase that will last a day or so.

I have eaten meals with a lot of other kids around our kids age and know that having as few problems as we have while also having the kids stay at the table the entire meal and actually eat a wide variety of food is a pretty special situation to be in. We make sure that we remind them how good they are.

So here is the part where you all chime in. I know that some of you have autistic children or children with other special needs. I’m sure your family situations will be at least slightly different. What has worked for you? What hasn’t? Please feel free to ask any questions, too.

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about things we have done to help Pookie become a better communicator. For a full list of everything planned for this series on autism, the topics and links for the post already written can be found on the intro post.

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