Tips for parents of kids with autism

Tips for parents of kids with autism to overcome OCD at the dining table

Tips for parents of kids with autism to overcome OCD at the dining table

Before I share diet and mealtime-related tips, I would like to share an experience treating a child. This child was diagnosed with autism at 2 years of age. As she grew older, her parents noticed that she developed obsessive-compulsive tendencies, particularly when it came to eating food. Her OCD made mealtime a challenging and distressing experience for both her and her family.

She had a strong aversion to certain textures and flavours, leading to a highly limited diet. She would inspect each bite of food, carefully arranging it on the plate, and became extremely anxious if any food items touched each other. Her anxiety around food grew so intense that she would often refuse to eat altogether, causing concern for her health and well-being.

Recognizing the importance of addressing this issue, her parents sought professional help. They approached a team of experts, including a paediatrician, an occupational therapist and me (registered dietitian) who is experienced in working with children on the autism spectrum.

How occupational therapist help?

The occupational therapist started by implementing a gradual exposure and desensitization approach. The therapist began with small steps, introducing new foods and textures slowly. For instance, the therapist started with foods that were similar to the ones she was already comfortable with but had slightly different textures or flavours.

To help reduce anxiety, the therapist introduced sensory tools, such as weighted utensils or chewable fidgets, to provide additional sensory input during meals. These tools helped to distract the child’s attention from her OCD rituals and promoted a more positive and relaxed eating experience.

The therapist also collaborated with me to ensure that the child’s nutritional needs were met while expanding her food repertoire. I shared reports, created meal plans and shared resources to gradually incorporate a wider variety of nutritious foods, ensuring a balanced and healthy diet.

To further support this child’s progress, the therapist and parents collaborated on a visual schedule and reward system. The visual schedule provided a clear structure and step-by-step guidance for mealtime routines, while the reward system offered incentives for trying new foods or engaging in positive eating behaviours.

Over time, with patience, persistence, and a supportive environment, she began to make progress in overcoming her OCD-related difficulties with food. Her willingness to try new foods increased, and her anxiety around mealtime gradually decreased. With the continued support of her therapy team and family, she was able to expand their diet and enjoy a broader range of foods in less than three months.

Though challenges still occasionally arose, this child’s journey taught all of them valuable coping strategies and resilience.

They found comfort in knowing that they had the tools and support to manage their OCD tendencies and make positive progress towards a healthier relationship with food.

Through their determination and unwavering support I experienced that with time, understanding, and a comprehensive approach, it is possible to overcome the obstacles presented by OCD and autism and create a more enjoyable and nourishing dining experience.

The relationship between autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is complex.

There are several reasons that may contribute to the presence of OCD symptoms in autistic children:

  • Autism and OCD share overlapping neurological conditions, with atypical brain functioning and alterations in certain brain regions and neurotransmitter systems.

  • Sensory sensitivities in autism can contribute to the development of OCD-like behaviours. Ritualistic behaviours and repetitive routines, common in autism, may share similarities with OCD rituals.

  • Children with autism often experience higher levels of anxiety due to challenges in social interactions, communication, and sensory processing. OCD symptoms may manifest as a way to cope with anxiety or gain control.

  • Difficulties in executive functioning, such as planning, organization, flexibility, and impulse control, can contribute to the development or worsening of OCD symptoms in autistic individuals.

  • Environmental factors like stressful events or disruptions in routine can trigger or exacerbate OCD symptoms in autistic children. Changes and transitions in the environment can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism, leading to increased anxiety and the emergence of OCD-like behaviours.

Overcoming obsessive-compulsive tendencies at the dining table can be challenging for parents of children with autism.

While diet alone cannot cure OCD, it can support overall mental and physical health. Here are some diet tips that may be helpful:

  • Balanced Nutrition: Ensure that the individual’s diet includes a balance of all food groups, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. This can provide essential nutrients for optimal brain function and overall well-being.

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish (salmon, mackerel), walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to improved brain health and may positively impact mood and mental health.

  • Limit Stimulants: Reduce or eliminate the intake of stimulants like caffeine and artificial additives, as they can potentially worsen anxiety and OCD symptoms in some individuals.

  • Whole Foods and Minimize Processed Foods: Opt for whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible. Processed foods can contain additives and preservatives that may negatively impact mental health. Fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains should form the foundation of the diet.

  • Hydration: Encourage adequate hydration by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Proper hydration supports overall health and can help maintain optimal brain function.

  • Regular Meal Schedule: Establish a consistent meal schedule with regular meal and snack times. This can help regulate energy levels and provide a sense of structure, which may be beneficial for individuals with OCD.

  • You need to consult with a registered dietitian who specializes in working with individuals with autism and OCD and can provide personalized advice, help identify any specific dietary triggers, and develop an appropriate meal plan.

It’s important to note that each child is unique, and dietary needs may vary. It is recommended to work closely with healthcare professionals, including dietitians and therapists, to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the specific needs of the individual with OCD and autism.

Remember, progress may take time, and each child is unique. Be patient, celebrate small victories, and focus on creating a positive and supportive mealtime environment. With consistency, understanding, and appropriate support, you can help your child overcome OCD tendencies and develop healthier eating habits. Not all autistic individuals will develop OCD, and the presence of OCD symptoms does not necessarily indicate a diagnosis of OCD.

Suhana Shriyan
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