A recent study found that around half of teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder are picky eaters, however, there are few differences in symptomatology between teens with food selectivity and teens with more “normal” eating patterns. Instead, the main difference was in the way that their parents perceived their food selectivity as a problem and had exhausted many strategies to help them eat a more balanced diet. This suggests that there is an intersection between picky eating and sensory processing issues among teens on the spectrum that often isn’t talked about.
Why is the relationship between picky eating and autism often overlooked?
It is easier for parents to pick up on problem behaviors than to recognize emotional issues as underlying causes. Teens with autism are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and unhealthy ways of coping with these emotions. As they struggle with rigid thinking and changes in routine, they are more likely to develop unhealthy eating patterns that they struggle to change.
When parents are focused on these behaviors or tantrums they may have when pressured to make different choices, it can be hard to keep in mind
that autism usually involve extreme selectivity and sensory-related aversions, including to food tastes and textures. This may explain why their safe foods are typically bland (rather than healthy, as one would typically expect from people who struggle with disordered eating).
Overlap Between Picky Eating and Autism Spectrum
- Restricted list of “safe foods”
- Ritualistic eating behaviors
- Meal-related tantrums due to overstimulation
- Special interest in nutrition, special diets, exercise
- Fixation on numbers (calories, weight)
- Black-and-white thinking
How Might Sensory Issues Explain the Connection?
It is estimated that teens on the spectrum are 15 times more likely to have “disordered eating” patterns due to sensory issues. At Seven Stars, we believe in a framework that suggests that most self-destructive behaviors start out as an attempt to self-soothe and regulate one’s emotions on their own. Disordered eating patterns are all considered ways to cope with the way one feels around food. This is particularly true among teens with autism, who often have difficulties with food textures, noticing or tolerating satiety, or gastrointestinal issues.
Teens may be picky eaters because they feel comfortable with the predictability of eating the same foods over and over again. Changes in their diet may lead to unfamiliar changes in the way they feel. Similarly, they may have gotten used to going to a particular restaurant and have adjusted to the sensory environment in that location. But, going to a different restaurant may feel overwhelming, even if they have similar menu options. Instead of turning every meal into a power struggle, learning to accommodate their need for consistency and offering tools to help them move out of their comfort zone can help teens on the spectrum feel more regulated around food.
What are the Benefits of a Residential Treatment Program for Autism-Related Disorders?
If your child on the spectrum is struggling with disordered eating patterns, it is likely that the eating disorder professionals you reach out to are less informed about the overlap between Autism Spectrum Disorder and disordered eating. They may not recognize that their food rituals or restricted food preferences are linked to sensitivity to tastes and textures or repetitive patterns. Their relationship with food may be better understood as part of their rigidity rather than a separate problem. When treatment is geared towards understanding the unique needs of teens on the spectrum, their anxiety around meals may be alleviated.
Many eating disorder programs focus on group processing and strict meal plans, which can be overwhelming for someone who struggles socially in large groups or overstimulating environments. As a small residential treatment center that works with teens with a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders, our qualified professionals are dedicated to coming up with individualized treatment plans according to your child’s needs.
Rather than addressing symptoms of autism individually, we look at how their intersections inform the most effective ways to help them make lasting behavior changes. Treatment goals in a residential treatment center for teens with autism are focused on expanding their food choices by addressing underlying anxiety, inflexibility and sensory issues. Our program is focused on helping teens improve their ability to self-monitor and self-advocate as they learn adaptive skills.
Seven Stars Can Help
Discover Seven Stars RTC is a small residential treatment program for young men and women ages 13-17 struggling with learning disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders, like ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Our program, based on positive psychology, provides acute care stabilization, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, and skill-building. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, self-awareness, and personal management. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control.
For more information about rigid processing in teens with autism, contact us at 844-601-1167. We can help your family today!
Since 2003, Dr. Gordon Day has passionately helped young people with a wide range of family, emotional, social, neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. Gordon’s mission has been to help people find their strengths and their own passion for living a full and rewarding life. He is particularly sensitive to the pressures, frustrations and disappointments that adolescents face that can sometimes cause them and their loved ones to want to withdraw and throw their hands up in despair.
Dr. Day knows that you really have to understand where a student is coming from and understand their patterns of strengths and needs. When we truly know an individual and their struggles, only then can we truly help.
Dr. Day has pioneered the use of outdoor therapy activities and outdoor living as a dynamic and effective therapeutic tool for learning, confidence building and skill building. His programs provide effective, supportive and encouraging environments that help students find their strengths and power.