Facing facts: Dr. Foxx says food can be a major issue for children with autism, and for their parents who are bombarded with suggestions of different diets to follow. Foxx, whose specialty is treating behavioral problems in people who have autism, says these children often choose their foods selectively, sometimes eating only foods of a certain color or items made by a particular brand. They may also gravitate to foods with a soothing texture, such as puddings. And they may fixate on appearance, rejecting items with, say, bits of green in them. To make matters worse, some children with autism have poor chewing skills, or may refuse to eat solid foods.
"Parents are so desperate to help their child that they may seize on less-traditional food regimens," says Foxx, co-author of Treating Eating Problems of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Interventions for Professionals and Parents (Pro-Ed, 2007). Some popular but highly controversial food interventions, he says, include gluten-free or dairy-free diets. "The danger is taking a one-size-fits-all approach," he says. "Autism is a complex disorder, and a well-balanced diet is always best for a child."
What to do: If you're concerned about your child's nutrition, it's best to enlist a licensed and certified professional, preferably one associated with a medical school, to do a full work-up on your child. Many parents have had success broadening their child's palate through behavioral methods, such as putting a tiny amount of a rejected food into a child's favorite food, and gradually increasing the amount. Children can also learn to broaden their palates by working with an occupational therapist.