Question: Should I be concerned that my child with autism will only eat hot dogs and pizza and chicken nuggets?
Answer: Many children with autism have such selective diets that parents worry that they're not getting adequate nutrition. The question comes in the form of, "If my child is only eating chicken nuggets or pizza, is that okay?" And it's a very common question.
Children with autism do have their dietary preferences. Sometimes we think that that's because of sensory issues that occur with certain foods, the texture of foods in a child's mouth.
So, one strategy for expanding the diet is to think about whether there may be other foods that share similar qualities to those preferred by a child, and see if gradually introducing those or making them available may expand the menu a little bit.
Certainly it's important to remember that all children can be pretty picky about what they eat and like, and so we don't want to over-interpret these behaviors in children with autism.
Another area of concern is whether there are foods that we should avoid, out of fear that they may make the autism worse. And while there are reports of children with food allergies or gluten, casein sensitivities, it's certainly the case that not all children with autism need to be on these selective diets simply because they have the diagnosis.
It's very important that there be some reason to look at a restrictive diet, and your pediatrician can help you with that before taking that path. Indeed, it's important to talk to your pediatrician about your child's growth, and whether, even in spite of what seems to be a ridiculously restricted diet, whether your child is making adequate progress.
Another area that relates to these dietary sensitivities is how other people perceive them. So, when it's time to go to camp or to go to grandma's, how do we manage that fact that our child only eats one thing.
Often I think it's better to send the child with that item, and to educate those around the child as to why these preferences do exist, that it's not merely being oppositional, and that can go a long way to smooth things over.
There are many battles to fight as kids are growing up. The battle around food preference is generally not one that's worth the effort.