Eating challenges for neurodivergent children

eating 3 min read , March 20, 2023

How does autism, ADHD, and other neurodivergencies impact the way children eat?

Many neurodivergent children have a hard time eating. Some of these could be because of underlying health issues, such as gluten or dairy intolerance - other times it’s due to sensory issues around foods. It’s always a good idea to consult a GP or dietician to find out more.

The National Autistic Society says Eating problems are common in autistic people.

“Issues such as only eating very few foods, not being able to eat at school, going long periods of time without eating and pica (eating non-foods) can feel difficult to understand and manage.” - National Autistic Association.

Here are some quick tips

Be kind to yourself - this might be the most important one! It can feel awful when your child can’t or won’t eat. As a parent with a child with a pediatric feeding disorder I felt like a failure. What mother can’t get her child to eat? The more I learned about eating challenges, the kinder I could be to myself. Your child not eating is NOT YOUR FAULT.

Don’t put your child on a restrictive diet without consulting a medical professional first.

Get support - input from your GP or dietician will help you with knowing what kind of changes you should make to what your child is eating.

Try a social story - I know! I know! Everyone suggests a social story but sometimes it can help. Here’s a social story example.

It’s OK to bribe or reward your child - Do whatever works! If your child will try a ‘new’ food then that’s a big deal. You can celebrate that.

Use positive language - “Food is fuel” and “food makes us feel good and strong”.

Keep a food diary - A food diary of your child’s food intake over a week or two will help identify patterns and may provide useful information before consulting a GP or dietician.

Here’s an example of what a food diary should include:

Here are some examples of what to include.

  • What time of the day did they eat? – 7.30am
  • What did they eat? – plain rice crackers [ETA brand]
  • Where did they eat? – At the dining table
  • How much did they eat? – Three crackers.
  • Who was there? – Mum, Nana
  • How did people around respond to the person eating the particular food? Mum said ‘well done’. Nana didn’t notice.
  • Were there any environmental factors? – Ipad was on in front of him.

Don’t try fads - It’s unlikely popular fad diets will address your child’s eating/feeding issues. You’ll likely get lots of useless advice. Be discerning – look for scientific evidence to back it up.

Think with your senses - food can be a difficult sensory experience for children who are already sensitive to sensory issues. So think about how loud the room you’re in is - is it distracting? What smells are there? Always consider sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.

For more information on common issues and concerns with feeding and eating, check out other panui from Awhi Nga Matau and IHC Library. Or contact the IHC library on 0800 442 442, email: for information about the following resources:

Children’s books:

Eat up Max and Millie - Felicity Brooks, illustrations Desideria Guicciardini

Diabetes and me - Kim Chaloner, illustrations Nick Bertozzi

Eat up, Gemma - Sarah Hayes, illustrations Jan Ormerod

Books for adults:

Feeding Challenges in Young Children – Strategies and Specialized Interventions for Success – Deborah Bruns, Stacy Thompson

Eating well: children and adults with learning disabilities – Nutritional and practical guidelines – Dr. Helen Crawley

The Parent's Guide to Occupational Therapy for Autism and Other Special Needs (Ch 3) – Cara Koscinski

The Down Syndrome Nutrition Handbook – A guide to promoting healthy lifestyles – Joan Medlen

It's all about the food – not the fork – Peter Morgan Jones

Supernourishment for children with autism spectrum disorder - Angelette Muller

What to Feed an Asperger – How to go from three foods to three hundred with love, patience and a little sleight of hand - Sarah Patten

Autism – Teach your autistic children hygiene skills to help them live a clean, healthy and happy life – Nancy Perez (chk chapter)

Autistic Logistics – A parents' guide to tackling bedtime, toilet training, meltdowns, hitting and other everyday challenges (Chapter 14) – Kate Wilde

Helpful websites: (EDANZ, Eating Disorder Association of New Zealand)