A hand holding a white plate filled with chicken nuggets.
13 Nov

Something to chew on: tips for making eating fun

Did you know that the 13th of November is International Chicken Nugget Day? While it might not be a big day for some, we know in our community that chicken nuggets are adored by autistic children and adults alike (not to mention their families, too!) Just ask Hugo, who spoke to us last year about how much he loves chicken nuggets (particularly the dinosaur kind)!

But, if your social media feeds and Facebook groups aren’t already inundated with chicken nugget memes, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Today, we’re going to explore what makes chicken nuggets so popular amongst people on the autism spectrum, and how you can harness the joy of eating them to broaden an autistic person’s palate.

So, what makes chicken nuggets so popular in the autism community?

Great question! Aside from being pretty tasty of course, there are quite a few reasons that chicken nuggets are the snack of choice for many autistic people.

People on the autism spectrum thrive on consistency, particularly when it comes to food. They take great comfort in knowing exactly what to expect at various times and from various things throughout their day, whether that’s the kinds of foods they eat or the times at which they eat them.

However, finding and preparing foods that will always look, feel and taste the same is next to impossible. Take a punnet of blueberries, for example - every single blueberry will have a slightly different shape, colour, texture and taste. And while a neurotypical person might not be bothered by this variety, an autistic person might find this very off-putting.

As a result, many people with autism have more limited diets than their neurotypical peers, often restricted to their ‘safe foods’ which will always look, smell, feel and taste the same. That’s where chicken nuggets come in! With their consistent colour, texture and very mild flavour, they’re practically the perfect food for people who experience sensory sensitivities, food aversions and anxiety around unpredictability and change.

Chicken nuggets are fun, so can mealtimes ever be?

Ask any autism parent how they feel about mealtimes, and we can almost guarantee they won’t respond with ‘fun.’ With over 90% of autistic children experience some kind of eating challenge, autism families often dread mealtimes and the conflicts they bring.

However, there are some evidence-based strategies families can try at home to address the eating challenges their child with autism has:

Create positive associations

By ensuring the environment in which a child with autism is introduced to new foods is positive, you’ll have much more luck in progressing with your goals. Here are some ways you can create positive associations for your child when it comes to trying new foods:

  • Play the child’s favourite movie, TV show or music
  • Place their favourite toys and activities in the area
  • Keep sensory toys and tools nearby

If a child can begin to associate trying new foods with having fun, they’ll feel much more comfortable looking at, interacting with or even eating a new food. This can also be an excellent resolution to those frustrating mealtime conflicts between children and their parents/carers!

Use gradual exposure

An excellent approach to introducing an autistic child to new foods is exposing them to that food in a safe and relaxed environment over a period of many weeks. By moving towards eating this food at the child’s pace, the child will feel less pressure and greater control over the situation, making them more likely to venture out of their comfort zone.

Here’s an example of what gradual exposure might look like:

  • In the first week, place the food far away from the child in the same room. If they notice the food or appear concerned by it, reassure them that they don’t need to touch or eat the food, it’s simply sitting there.
  • Once the child is comfortable with being in the same room as the food, you might try moving the food onto a table the child is sitting at. If they are concerned, you can again reassure them that they don’t need to touch or eat it if they don’t want to.
  • Once the child can sit at the table with the food nearby, you can then encourage them to interact with the food rather than eating it straight away (e.g., touching, smelling or licking the food). Eventually, you can encourage the child to take small bites, then larger bites, then eat the entire food independently.

Try the 'first, then' approach

Sometimes, using one of a child’s existing ‘safe foods’ can be a great incentive for broadening their palate. This is where the ‘first, then’ approach comes in.

Place the child’s safe food and the food you’d like them to try on two separate plates. Before the child can eat some of their safe food, instruct them to eat or interact with the new food in some way (e.g., touching, licking, smelling, pulling apart). Once they’ve done this, they can then have some of their safe food as a reward. This is a highly motivating way for both the child and their family to try new foods, as it involves a food the child already enjoys.

For more detailed information about these approaches, you can check out our recent webinar hosted by National Clinical Director of Autism Partnership Karen McKinnon!

Things to keep in mind

Navigating eating challenges is no small feat, so creating the most encouraging environment for both you and your child is crucial for success. Here are some things to consider when putting plans to address eating concerns in place:

Mood and energy levels

This applies to both you and your child! We’re never our best selves when we’re tired, upset, angry or feeling another intense emotion, and we’re certainly not capable of teaching or trying something new.It’s okay to delay trying new foods if you or your child aren’t in the right headspace: in fact, it’s actually more productive.

Others' approaches

So, your friend’s neurotypical child is eating spicy wings while your child will only touch chicken nuggets, or a relative criticises your child’s limited diet at a family get-together. The opinions and experiences of others can be very unsupportive, particularly if your child is on a different developmental path. However, it’s important not to compare your child or your family to others – it’s unhelpful in the short term and harmful in the long term.

Don't force it

Although this process can be incredibly slow and progress is rarely linear, it’s very important not to force anyone involved todo something they’re not comfortable doing. Forcing a child to eat or try a certain food can destroy their trust in you, undoing weeks, months or even years of progress. It’s very important to meet your child where they’re at and move at their pace – in the long run, you’ll be thankful you did.

On a serious note

Although International Chicken Nugget Day is hardly a serious occasion, eating difficulties can be highly stressful for autistic people, their parents/carers and others that love and care for them. Aside from impacting an individual’s nutrition, eating difficulties can cause social challenges, relationship strain, safety issues and have long-term impacts on health, wellbeing and development.  

Here are some signs a child on the autism spectrum might require professional support to address their eating challenges:

  • Struggles to gain weight or experiences weight loss
  • Often gags, chokes or coughs during meals
  • Issues around vomiting
  • More than one incident of nasal reflux
  • History of a traumatic choking incident
  • History of eating and breathing coordination problems or other respiratory issues that impact eating
  • Cries during most meals
  • Frequent fights or conflicts during mealtimes around eating
  • Most or all adults in the child’s life have great difficulty feeding them
  • Avoids or has aversions to all foods with a specific texture or within a specific food group
  • Eats less than 20 foods in total and begins avoiding some of these foods without replacing them with new ones

Eating difficulties can also affect very young children and their development. Here are some developmental red flags that indicate a young child might require support:

  • Has not transitioned to baby food purees by 10 months of age
  • Does not eat table food solids by 12 months of age
  • Has not transitioned from breastfeeding/bottle feeding to a cup by 16 months of age
  • Has not weaned off baby foods by 16 months of age

Where to from here?

Regardless of how big or small an autistic person’s eating challenges may seem, they and their families shouldn’t have to navigate them alone. People with autism and their loved ones can benefit hugely from professional support to address eating challenges and have the right to access quality and evidence-based care from professionals that understand the complexities of eating for autistic people.

We recommend reaching out to one of the following medical professionals for further support:

  • Dieticians/nutritionists
  • Behavioural consultants
  • Speech pathologists
  • Other medical professionals, such as your GP

And remember, the next time you see a chicken nugget meme in a Facebook group or on your feed, have a laugh and know you’re not alone! There are plenty of individuals and families that know exactly what you’re going through, so connect with others where you can while reminding yourself that whatever approach to eating works for your family will always be the right way forward.

For further support, you can visit the following pages: 

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