Autistic boy with food sensitivities
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Food & the Senses

Autistic people can often have issues with food and eating. What causes these issues can be varied and complex.  

If you’re a parent of an autistic child, who eats too much or too little, it can be scary, and you can worry about the implications on their health and feel powerless. 

 In this article, I will talk to you about the sensory reasons an autistic person might have eating difficulties and what can help. 

Food and The Senses: 

If you know anything about autism, you know that almost all autistic people have sensory differences. 

With eating, there’s no exception; and eating involves just about every sense. So with this in mind, let’s take a look at our senses and how they can play into eating difficulties. 

  • Touch  

Touch is our tactile sense: and is our sense of skin contact.  

It’s in our mouths, and it allows us to sense if objects or food are wet or dry, soft or hard, hot or cold, and their texture and consistency. 

  • Taste 

Taste is our gustatory sense; it allows us to experience flavours. 

When we eat, it helps us sense sweet, bitter, umami, sour and salty.  

  • Smell 

Smell is our olfactory sense and helps us determine what food will taste like before we eat. Therefore it also helps plays a role in us differentiating between sweet, bitter, umami, sour and salty.  

  • Thermoception 

Thermoception is our sense of temperature and allows us to know if we are too hot or cold. Thus, it can affect how much we enjoy cold, chilled, hot, and spicy foods. 

  • Proprioception 

Proprioception is our sense of body awareness and is what we feel when we contract and stretch our muscles. When we eat, many muscles are used; this can mean we may have preferences for soft, hard, crunchy, or chewy foods. 

  • Sight 

Sight is our sense of vision; it allows us to determine whether a food has gone bad or whether an object looks edible or ripe. 

  • Hearing 

Hearing is our sense of sound, and it helps us to understand factors about a foods state. For example, if a food usually is soft but is now crunchy, this may be a sign it has gone bad. 

  • Nociception 

Nociception is our sense of pain and allows us to know if something is harmful to our bodies. When we freeze or burn our mouths or when we eat spices, this sense is used. 

  • Vestibular 

Our vestibular sense is our sense of balance. It not only helps us stay on our feet but also plays an enormous role in things like nausea; so I’m sure you can guess how this plays into eating. 

  • Interoception 

Interoception is a sense we rarely hear about, and so might be overlooked. It’s our internal body sense. It’s what allows us to know what’s going on inside our bodies: and so helps us know if we are hungry, when food is bad for us by making us nauseous, and when we need to use the toilet.  

A few other things can play into our sensory experiences of food. One of these is negative past experiences. Stress can also increase our sensitivity to food as well as certain physical and mental conditions. 

Autistic people can also eat as a replacement sensation to block out something unpleasant.  

Pica

There’s also a condition called pica; this is a condition where someone eats inedible objects. Some reasons for this could be: 

  • lack of awareness of what is/isn’t food 
  • to gain attention or to avoid a demand 
  • to relieve anxiety or distress 
  • a lack of adequate nutrition 
  • for sensory feedback 

The benefits of a sensory diet: 

One major thing that can help an autistic person is a sensory diet: this isn’t a food diet; it’s a life diet. It’s an everyday set of activities, accommodations, and even fun things we do to help us meet our sensory needs. Doing so has huge benefits such as helping us feel less anxiety, focus better, and reducing those horrid meltdowns. 

Firstly you’ll need to be a bit of a detective and figure out all those sensory needs (you can use the above senses list as a guide). Next, you’ll need to scratch your brain to think of all the ways these senses may be affecting your or your child. Lastly, you can make a daily plan for how to meet these needs. 

Some examples could be: 

  • noise-cancelling headphones for someone who is oversensitive to sound 
  • exercise activities for someone who has high proprioceptive needs 
  • morning massage for someone who has trouble waking up 
  • smell jars for those who need replacement smells 
  • finger-painting for those with tactile needs 

These are just a few examples, but a sensory diet can be made up of literally anything.  

Well, I hope this information helps you understand some of the reasons you or your child may be struggling with food. But please remember there are many other reasons such as physical and mental health conditions.  

If you are want to know more, please contact me at The Autism Spectrum Academy.   I do 1-2-1 sessions where I can explain these reasons in more depth and help you understand both the sensory and mental health side of eating difficulties. 

Here are some of my videos where I talk about this topic in more detail: 

Autism: Eating Problems and their causes 

Why are autistic people picky eaters? 

What is a Sensory Diet?

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