Picky eating is a common childhood behavior that sometimes does not resolve with age. It usually starts during the second or third year of life, where toddlers refuse to eat vegetables or try new tastes. Recently, it has been suggested that food selectivity may be related to sensory processing dysfunction and more specifically, oral sensory sensitivity. This suggestion is particularly relevant for individuals that have been diagnosed with ASD (Chistol et al., 2018) that usually have particular eating habits.
What do we mean with sensory processing?
This refers to the ability to register, process and organize sensory information and to exhibit common responses to environmental stimuli. In some cases, these responses may differ, presenting as oversensitivity or under sensitivity to particular stimuli.
How does this relate to food and eating habits?
Sensory processing in this case describes how the brain processes the smell, taste, temperature, color, texture and other aspects of the experience of eating. As this varies a lot, it is easy to understand that there are many different reasons that children may dislike particular foods.
Sensory sensitivity is also more likely to make children seek foods that are always the same, like chicken nuggets or McDonald’s fries: this eliminates the chances of having a taste or texture that may be aversive. This trait may be more prominent in neurodiverse children, but is may also be the case for neurotypical children too: “Heightened sensitivity to sensory information has been associated with food fussiness in both atypical and typical development” (Smith, Rogers, Blissett & Ludlow, 2020).
How to tackle picky eating
If you are worried about your child’s picky eating, the first step would be to see a doctor and rule out any underlying medical conditions. If a child is persistently refusing some foods, it may be because they make them feel unwell.
A specialist can guide you on expanding your child’s diet. They are likely to assess your child’s oral sensory sensitivity by asking questions, such as if you have observed avoidance of certain tastes or food smells typical for children’s diets, if your child will only eat certain tastes and particular food textures or temperatures. For the assessment, it is useful to provide daily examples and be prepared to keep some notes the days before the appointment, as it is likely that you will be asked to provide a 3-day food diary.
Create a healthy relationship with eating
In any case, it is very important to avoid turning the daily mealtime into a battle. Minimize family’s stress around food, have various options available and avoid at all costs pressuring or scaring your child into trying some food. These tactics will help build a good relationship between food and mental health. Give it some time, and if the issue persists seek a specialist’s advice.
If your child has a restricted diet that is impacting their everyday life, it may be a good idea to seek professional help.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Elena Marinopoulou is a Behavior Analyst with Willingness Team. She works with
children and adults and has a strong interest in parent training, sleep and feeding
issues emerging during childhood, as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Chistol, L. T., Bandini, L. G., Must, A., Phillips, S., Cermak, S. A., & Curtin, C. (2018). Sensory Sensitivity and Food Selectivity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 48(2), 583–591. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3340-9
Smith, B., Rogers, S., Blissett, J., & Ludlow, A. (2020). The relationship between sensory sensitivity, food fussiness and food preferences in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Appetite, 150, 104643. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2020.104643