How Can Occupational Therapists Help Children On the Spectrum with Feeding?

By Deborah Lee MS, OTR/L

Occupational therapy (OT) plays a crucial role in addressing various challenges that individuals, including children, face in their daily lives. When it comes to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), feeding skills can often be affected due to sensory processing challenges and rigidity commonly associated with the condition.

Children with autism often experience sensory processing differences, which can impact their eating habits. For example, they may be hypersensitive to certain textures, tastes, or smells of food, leading to aversions or refusal to eat certain foods. On the other hand, some children may seek out specific sensory experiences, such as only wanting crunchy or bland foods. These sensory preferences can significantly limit their food choices and nutritional intake. Rigidity, or difficulty adapting to changes, is another common trait in children with autism. This can manifest in rigid eating routines, where they insist on eating the same foods prepared in the same way, and any deviation from this routine can cause distress. This rigidity can make it challenging for parents and caregivers to introduce new foods or encourage a variety in their diet.

Occupational therapists employ various strategies to help children with autism improve their feeding skills while addressing sensory processing challenges and rigidity:

  1. Sensory Integration Techniques

OTs use sensory integration techniques to help children become more comfortable with different food textures, tastes, and smells. This may involve gradually exposing them to new foods in a controlled and supportive environment, using strategies like food play, food exploration, and desensitization techniques.

  1. Environmental Modifications

OTs may suggest environmental modifications to create a more conducive eating environment for children with autism. This could include minimizing distractions during meal times, using special utensils or plates designed for sensory-sensitive children, and creating a predictable mealtime routine to reduce anxiety.

  1. Introducing Food in a Systematic Way

Rather than overwhelming the child with new foods, OTs often recommend a systematic approach to introducing new foods. This might involve starting with foods that have similar sensory characteristics to those the child already accepts and gradually introducing new textures, tastes, and smells over time.

  1. Incorporating Preferred Foods

While working on expanding the child’s food repertoire, OTs also recognize the importance of incorporating preferred foods into their diet to ensure adequate nutrition. They may offer strategies to gradually expand the variety within preferred food categories to encourage a more balanced diet

While working on expanding the child’s food repertoire, OTs also recognize the importance of incorporating preferred foods into their diet to ensure adequate nutrition. They may offer strategies to gradually expand the variety within preferred food categories to encourage a more balanced diet

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