Eating Habits in Autistic Young People: Facts and Statistics

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It’s normal for any young person to have phases of selective eating or specific requirements about how and where they eat their food. But research suggests that autistic young people may experience eating difficulties more often or more persistently than young people who are not autistic.

These habits may be linked to autistic traits, such as difficulties coping with change or sensory differences.

While many eating habits are harmless, some can result in serious health problems, such as malnourishment or weight loss. In these cases, autistic young people may require additional support to manage and change harmful eating habits to more positive ones.

This blog provides some facts and statistics about eating habits and eating problems in autistic young people and outlines the kinds of support available.

Autism and Selective and Avoidant Eating

It’s normal for children to go through phases of selective eating. This might mean refusing to eat certain types of foods, because of their texture, taste, a lack of interest in eating, or other reasons. While selective eating can be a normal part of child development, it is not usually permanent or severe enough to seriously damage their growth and health.

Sometimes, however, selective eating can be persistent and start to harm a young person’s physical and mental health. It can lead to weight loss, malnutrition, and other physical health problems, as well as psychological and social consequences when eating difficulties interfere with friendships and relationships with others.

Selective eating (known as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder when it reaches a clinical level) exists among young people who are autistic and those who are not. But autistic young people may be more likely to have selective eating difficulties. Experts think that certain autistic traits, such as following strict routines or being especially sensitive to sensory information like taste, sound, and touch, may cause or contribute to selective eating.

Research on selective eating among autistic young people suggests that sensitivity to texture is the most common reason for avoiding certain foods. They may also avoid foods because of:

  • sensitivity to texture, taste, colour, and appearance
  • anxieties related to swallowing, contamination, fear of trying new foods, and choking
  • low interest in food or eating

It’s common for autistic young people to only eat ‘beige’ starchy foods, such as pasta, bread, and potatoes. They may also want to eat only pureed foods.

Autism, Eating Routines, and Eating Utensils

Autistic young people may also have specific habits about where and how they eat food. Many parents report that their children will only eat with a particular set of cutlery, a specific plate, or when food is presented in a certain way.

They may also prefer to eat alone rather than with their friends. This might be because it’s easier to follow specific routines outside of a social situation, where there may be more pressure to conform to the eating habits of others.

Do Young Autistic People Have Different Eating Habits from Young People Who Are Not Autistic?

While many parents of young autistic people (and autistic young people themselves) report eating habits like selective eating, it’s not always been clear how much they differ from people who are not autistic. Selective eating and other difficulties are also experienced by 25-42% of young people without autism.

However, research comparing different groups of young people has found that overall, young autistic people do have significantly more eating problems than those who aren’t autistic and tend to eat a narrower range of food. 

In particular, autistic young people were more likely to:

  • refuse foods
  • require specific utensils
  • only eat foods of a certain texture

According to the review, 72% of autistic young people only ate a narrow range of foods. Other research found that among a group of autistic young people, 67% were currently experiencing eating problems compared to 33% of typically developing children. 

On the other hand, data has shown that the difference between the number of children who had experienced feeding or eating problems at some point in their lives may be much smaller (56% compared to 42%). 

But the researchers note that while autistic young people may not be more likely to experience eating difficulties at some time in their childhood, they are still more likely to experience them for a longer period of time and experience more difficulties simultaneously. 

Why Do Autistic Young People Experience Eating Difficulties or Specific Eating Habits?

Autistic young people who have patterns of selective eating often show certain character or personality traits. For example, they may prefer to follow strict routines or struggle to cope with uncertainty. These traits can make them reluctant to eat with other people or prefer to eat only one particular brand of food.

Researchers have identified two key traits that are linked to the severity of eating problems among autistic young people. These are:

  • difficulties adapting to change, associated with greater food avoidance, ritualistic eating, and selective eating behaviours
  • sensory impairment, associated with ritualistic behaviours and a greater emotional response from parents to their child’s eating habits

In all groups of children, parents’ emotional responses to their children’s eating, and their own selective eating behaviours were linked to children’s eating difficulties.

Eating Difficulties and Adapting to Change

The link between a young autistic person’s ability to adapt to change and the extent of their eating difficulties is important. It suggests that while young people who are not autistic may be able to overcome selective eating or food avoidance behaviours, young autistic people may find it more difficult.

This means that it may help young autistic people to introduce a new food by showing it to them many times in a short space of time so they become familiar with it. This might involve placing it nearby on the table or asking the young person to touch or smell the food.

What Kinds of Support Can Help Young Autistic People Change Certain Eating Habits?

Many eating habits of autistic young people may be harmless. However, others may have serious consequences for their physical and psychological health, particularly if they avoid entire food groups that are essential for nutritional well-being. 

These young people may require additional support to manage and improve food restrictions. This often involves a team of different kinds of specialists, including speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, medical doctors, social services, and psychological support.

There are several behavioural interventions that can help young autistic people to eat a greater range of foods. These include taste exposure and positive reinforcement of healthy eating habits. They may also benefit from family interventions that address the way families approach eating and mealtimes and tackle challenging mealtime behaviours.

The Wave Clinic: A Private Treatment Space that Makes a Difference

The Wave Clinic is a residential treatment space dedicated to young people. Situated just outside of Kuala Lumpur city centre, Malaysia, our programs aim to enable and inspire.

We work with young people to overcome mental health challenges, learn new skills, and plan and build fulfilling futures. Alongside exceptional clinical care, we offer personal learning programs, vocational qualifications, volunteering, internships, and the chance to learn from different communities and cultures.

Rooted in a philosophy of fairness and inclusivity, our approach caters to neurodiverse young people with experience and expertise.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to make a difference.

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).

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