Autism and Food Aversion Explained

Date

Food aversion is when someone has a strong dislike or repulsion from a particular food or foods. It often goes hand in hand with selective eating: only eating a certain selection of foods.

Autistic young people often experience food aversion, especially related to a food’s texture, taste, or other senses. While food aversion isn’t always a problem, it can lead to malnutrition and other health problems, especially when entire food groups are avoided. 

This blog explores food aversion among autistic young people, its causes, and its consequences. It also outlines the kinds of treatment available to help young autistic people gain and maintain physical and mental health.

What Is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that means a person’s brain works differently from other people’s. Autistic people may have difficulties expressing their feelings, understanding social cues, and coping with change. But, like everyone, autistic people also have lots of strengths, and many live fulfilling and happy lives.

Autism spectrum disorder is a spectrum, meaning that autistic people can think and act in lots of different ways. However, there are some common traits shared by many autistic people. These include:

  • being overwhelmed by sensory experiences, such as bright lights or loud sounds
  • thinking or doing the same thing over and over
  • finding change and unfamiliar situations stressful
  • becoming very interested in a certain topic
  • finding it hard to understand how other people are feeling

What Causes Food Aversion and Selective Eating with Autism?

Parents of young autistic people report different reasons for their food aversion. These include:

  • Sensory sensitivities
  • Anxiety about eating
  • A lack of interest in food or eating
  • A need for certain eating routines

Sensory Sensitivities

The most common reason for food aversion among autistic young people is sensory sensitivity – an aversion to the texture, taste, sight, or smell of the food. Of these, aversion to the texture of the food is most common.

Young autistic people are often more sensitive to sensory experiences or process senses in a different way from other young people. Research has found that around 90% of autistic experience sensory symptoms, particularly related to smell and taste. These differences may cause strong aversions to certain foods so it feels hard or impossible to eat them.

Some young autistic people with sensory sensitivities may only eat starchy, bland, ‘beige’ foods such as potatoes, bread, and pasta. Other young people may only eat foods with little texture, such as pureed foods.

Eating Anxieties

Some young autistic people avoid certain foods because of anxieties related to eating. For example, they may be afraid of swallowing, trying new foods, choking, or becoming ill.

Young autistic people often find change more difficult to cope with than people who are not autistic. This trait might cause them to avoid foods that they haven’t tried before. In fact, research has found that among autistic young people, an inability to adapt to change is associated with greater food avoidance and selective eating.

Lack of Interest in Food

Some autistic people may avoid foods because they lack interest in eating in the first place. A lack of interest in food may also be accompanied by slow eating or difficulties staying at a meal table.

Specific Eating Routines

Sometimes, avoidance of food may not be caused by food itself, but by the environment or process through which it is eaten. For example, some autistic people may only eat food that is presented in a certain way or from a specific brand. It’s also normal for autistic young people to only want to use a specific piece of cutlery or plate.

How Common Is Food Aversion Among Autistic Young People?

Research shows that food aversion is common among autistic young people.

In one study, 72% of parents reported that their child ate a narrow range of food. Other research found that 67% of young people were experiencing eating problems, compared to only 33% of young people without autism.

What Are the Consequences of Food Aversion?

Food aversion isn’t always harmful for young autistic people. Sometimes, food aversion can happen with only a small range of foods and eating a balanced and nutritious diet is still possible. 

However, when food aversion happens with many foods – or whole food groups – it can have serious consequences for a young person’s health. Selective eating is linked to low weight and problems with growth and development. It may also cause nutritional deficiencies and related illnesses, including anaemia, scurvy, and rickets.

Young people with food aversion can also experience psychosocial consequences related to restricted eating. For example, they may avoid eating meals collectively or sharing food with others, leading to increased isolation and affecting their friendships and relationships.

If a young autistic person experiences severe food aversion that significantly impacts their daily life, they may receive a diagnosis of ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder). AFRID is an eating disorder characterised by restrictive eating behaviours that are not driven by body image issues or a fear of gaining weight. ARFID is more common among young autistic people than those who are not autistic.

How Is Food Aversion Different for Autistic Young People than Others?

Food aversion isn’t something that only autistic people experience. In fact, many young people experience food aversion as a normal development phase.

But research suggests that young autistic people are more likely to have food aversion persistently than other children. They’re also more likely to eat a smaller range of food and have more eating difficulties. 

Some experts think that difficulties coping with change (a common autistic trait) may play a role in persistent food aversion and selective eating among young autistic people. These difficulties may make it harder for young people to introduce new foods into their diet and maintain aversions to certain foods.

Treating Food Aversion in Autistic Young People

Severe food aversion can have a big effect on the physical and psychological well-being of autistic young people. However, food aversion is treatable and with the right support, young people can learn to eat a wider range of foods that fulfil their nutritional needs.

Studies show that a multidisciplinary approach can effectively treat food restriction and ARFID among autistic young people. This usually involves a combination of different professionals and services, including:

  • speech and language therapists
  • occupational therapists
  • medical doctors
  • autism services
  • dietitians
  • local social networks
  • mental health services

Therapists may use behavioural interventions to help young people increase the range of foods that they eat. This might include:

  • stimulus fading procedures that involve gradual exposure to feared foods
  • repeated taste exposure
  • positive reinforcement

Nutritional supplements can also help to stabilise a young person’s health, especially in the early stages of treatment.

The Wave Clinic: Building Life Advantage

The Wave Clinic is a private residential treatment space just outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We set the global standard for young people’s mental health support, combining specialist clinical care with education, global citizenships, and an international gap year experience.

Many of the young people are neurodiverse. We make sure our programs are directed and led by experts in autism spectrum disorder and other neurodiverse conditions. All our experiences are sensory-appropriate and inclusive for all young people.

We work with young people to plan and build the futures they dream of. If you’re interested in our programs, get in touch today.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

More from Fiona Yassin
Low angle view of a group of multiracial friends standing on a circle, smiling and embracing

Understanding Mental Illness Identity

When a young person has a mental illness, it has a big effect on their daily life. Managing and recovering from mental health disorders can take a lot of time and energy. Mental health disorders may affect their relationships, school or work, and plans for the future.

Read More »

Professional associations and memberships

We are here to help

Have any questions or want to get started with the admissions process? Fill in the form below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

    Wave-Logo_square

    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    London, United Kingdom