Taste Aversions in Children on the Autism Spectrum

“Why does my HFA daughter adamantly refuse to eat any new foods? Her diet is severely limited and she literally becomes ill (or does a great job a faking it) if I force her to eat something not on her VERY small list of favorites.”

“Taste aversions” can occur both consciously and unconsciously. In many cases, children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) may be completely unaware of the underlying reasons for their dislike of a type of food.

Taste aversions are a great example of some of the fundamental mechanics of classical conditioning. The previously neutral stimulus (e.g., green beans) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (e.g., dislike of the color green), which leads to an unconditioned response (feeling ill). After this one-time pairing, the previously neutral stimulus (in this example, green beans) is now a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response (avoiding green beans as well as any other green colored food).

Because of their sensitivity to smell, temperature, taste and texture, kids with Aspergers and HFA are often "picky" eaters. Some even develop strong fetishes, for example:
  • they like to suck on pens, pencils or clothing
  • they only like beige-colored foods
  • they only like foods with creamy textures
  • they only like foods with a very sour or very spicy taste

Aspergers and HFA kids also sometimes have issues with developing gastric problems (e.g., acid reflux, hiccups, diarrhea, vomiting, and constipation). They are susceptible to celiac disease, which is caused by poor absorption of certain nutrients. The danger is that celiac disease damages the digestive system. These young people often suffer from Dermatitis herpetiformis, which causes skin rashes and tissue damage in the intestine. It has also been shown that gluten can aggravate behavioral symptoms in those kids who are sensitive to these foods.

It becomes a real challenge for moms and dads to make sure their “special needs” child gets proper nutrition. One trick that has worked for some parents is to change the texture of a despised food. If your youngster will not eat peas, try serving pea soup. If she refuses orange juice, try orange slices. Most therapists believe that the less you indulge food fetishes, the less entrenched they become. If a youngster creates a rule that "no foods can touch on my plate," it can easily become a lifelong rule if mom or dad fail to intervene.

One promising food therapy is the "Gluten-Free Casein-Free Diet" or GFCF diet. The theory behind it is that a youngster with Aspergers or HFA can’t digest casein (found in dairy) or gluten (found in grains). It is true that undigested molecules of these substances frequently show up in their urine samples. These amino acid chains (called peptides) affect neurological function and can worsen a youngster's symptoms. Peptides may have an opiate effect on some kids.

Parents can begin the diet by first eliminating either the casein or the gluten food group. No gluten means avoiding the following (just to name a few):
  • all kinds of flour
  • barley
  • biscuits
  • bread
  • cakes
  • cereals
  • croutons
  • donuts
  • food starch
  • oats
  • pasta
  • pie
  • pizza
  • pretzels
  • rye

Parents can substitute gluten-free products. Next, eliminate all dairy products (e.g., milk, cheese, goat's milk, goat cheese, ice cream, yogurt, most margarines, puddings, etc.). If parents eliminate the dairy group, they may have to give their youngster calcium supplements. They also need to cut out "trigger foods" (e.g., chocolate, food colorings, caffeine, or peanut butter).

Many mothers and fathers believe that the GFCF diet really helps their kids. In one survey of over 2000 parents who tried it, most saw significant improvement – and five reported "miracles."

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Research into diet and vitamin therapy for kids with Aspergers and HFA is very sketchy at this point. Nevertheless, many parents try them. One scientific study of alternative therapies found that over half of all parents of Aspergers kids have tried diets, herbs or vitamin therapy – and 72% felt they were worthwhile. Many mothers and fathers swear by the GFCF diet. Other parents prefer the Feingold diet or megavitamin therapy.

Parents can buy supplements of herbs and vitamins specifically made for young people on the spectrum. Such supplements often include calcium, fish oil, omega -3 -6 or -9, vitamin B-6, HNI enzymes and DMG or dimethylglycine. If parents use these diets and therapies, they should keep written records of how often their youngster experiences temper tantrums or exhibits other behaviors. In this way, parents can tell if the therapy is working.

There have been a few scientific studies of the GFCF diet. In a study of 15 ASD kids (2 – 15 years of age), there was no difference between the kids who followed the diet and those who did not. However, researchers at the Loma Linda Medical Institute in California concluded that the diet was mostly helpful and improved nonverbal cognition, but that more double blind studies are needed.

Many moms and dads have tried the GFCF or Feingold diets and found that they were not worth the effort. These diets make it extremely hard to buy regular groceries or to eat in restaurants. If there are siblings involved, parents end up cooking different meals for them. Also, trying to stick to the diets may cause parental burnout, which then causes the disadvantages to outweigh the advantages.

 ==> Is your child a picky eater? Click here for more ideas...

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    Anonymous said... For my kiddo, it's a sensory thing..... Mashed potatoes, peas, peanut butter etc. all have a thick, somewhat sticky texture that makes her wretch. Having that history makes her reluctant to even taste things like pudding, custard or soups with a thicker texture..... If it LOOKS like it might have the wrong texture, it's not gonna happen.
•    Anonymous said... Forcing is counterproductive .... Sometimes " planting the seed" and wording or demonstrating the benefits are a slower but more lasting lesson at home we have the rule of at least touching or smelling the food and if I feel there is a strong possibility he will like it, I ask that he just lick or put some on his tongue - always with the promise that a genuine dislike will be accepted that time. There are definite things he will still not and probably never eat but this approach has increased his diet greatly.
•    Anonymous said... Give him time, and don't force the issue if he truly dislikes something. I learned that the hard way and cleaned up alot of messes because of it. My son was the same way for most of his childhood but in the last year (he's about to turn 13) he has grown out of alot of it. He still refuses to eat certain things (bananas being at the top of the list) but he will now at least try to eat a cooked potato or carrot in very small quantities where before they would trigger immediate gag reflexes and he is also finally eating at a healthy level.
•    Anonymous said... Hang in there. Texture smell & taste can be overwhelming 2aspie kids. I have always introduced different food 2my daughter w/the attitude 'try 1bite, the worst that will happen is u dont like it!'
•    Anonymous said... How True!
•    Anonymous said... I have come to understand that this is the ONE thing my child feels he is in control of. If you try to change it he gets very upset. He will sometimes eat other foods, but when it comes right down to it, this is the way he wants it (same foods, limited menu), because he is in control of it. We will work on change in that area once we are comfortable with the progress we're making in other areas. One step at a time.
•    Anonymous said... My 5 year old is the same way. I've gotten him to try maybe 2 things since he was diagnosed a year ago. I think my son will eat maybe 5 things that is it! So I do a lot of vitamins to give him what he needs
•    Anonymous said... My son is the same way! I have tried to introduce new things to him, but he refuses to go out of his comfort zone of having only 10 things that he will actually eat. He always has to smell everything too. I have noticed, that he will find something he really likes, such as a plain ketchup sandwich, and eat it for weeks, then he goes to something else. I have to make him a separate meal every night, because he refuses to eat anything we are having.
•    Anonymous said... Same problem here.
•    Anonymous said... sometimes she will try it sometimes she wont. When she does like it i usually have 2remind her she liked it last time & 2try it again. I let her decide 2try it, but i keep presenting different things all the time. Slowly we have expanded her diet! Just keep encouraging her 2try!
•    Anonymous said... That is one battle I don't fight.
•    Anonymous said... The food thing is the one immovable object with my son. He does everything else I ask. If he could do it (eat more foods) I know he would as he loves to make me happy.
•    Anonymous said... We have been SO lucky with our son, he loves his veggies... but only raw. He really hates cooked veg. My hunch is that this is two fold. We have a garden that we let the boys just run free and munch whatever they want from there, so it gets to be "their idea". That has seemed to help the older one relate to what is on his plate a little better. Also, we tend to do food in courses. It's just easier to get the boys to sit down and plop a few bowls of cut carrots, celery, broccoli etc. and dip and let them graze on that first (again, their choice as to what they eat), then we tend to serve the meat/protein next and the starches last.
•    Anonymous said... We start oral ot this week, i wonder how its going to go for my 6 yod who has spd. Has anyone here done the oral ot?
•    Anonymous said... Why? Sensory issues, smell, texture and the way it feels in the mouth or hands, taste, the way it looks, there's a lot going on with sensory and food and why and what we eat.
•    Anonymous said... Wow! I'm so glad I'm not the only one! My son is 8 and JUST decided he would take 1 no thank you bite, of what we are eating as a family, but he has to try it... He smells everything, and most things he tries will instantly make him gag. He puts ranch on EVERYTHING. He does willingly try it because he knows we expect him to and its ok if he gags, just drink it down quick with water.

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