Your autistic child’s diet influences their behavior

A Teaching Aside

This post comes from watching kids (and adults) eat what is laughingly referred to as a lunch. I also watch these kids’ energy levels wax and wane across the day and can easily plot out the sugar highs and crashes these kids are having based solely on their classroom behavior.

What am I seeing?

I see a disturbing number of children in a school setting being given little more than a series of candy bars and sugary snacks in lieu of a healthy lunch. I watch these kids live on a steady diet of energy drinks and sugary sodas. I watch them get hyperactive and lose control over themselves. Then I watch them crash and become grumpy and intolerably stubborn when the sugar high inevitably collapses into a mild hypoglycemic shock. Then I watch them drag their feet as they head out the door homeward, presumably to start the process anew.

…And those are the normal kids…

When I look at the autistic kids at school I see exactly the same thing, only worse. I see a lunchbox containing a Froot Roll-Up, a Dr. Pepper, a package of Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls, and an individually wrapped string cheese (the kind that survives 6 hours at room temperature). I see another containing a small bag of pretzels, a baggie full of Tootsie Rolls, and a “juice” box (no more than 10% juice). Yet another contains two Capri Sun, a hot dog cut into pieces, a bag of skittles, and a Coca Cola. The winner of the day is the child with a Pepsi and a Lunchable.

I am going to compare these lunches with the standard school lunch from the same day: a chocolate milk (1%), a ham and cheese sandwich (2 slices of ham loaf and a slice of cheddar cheese on a standard white roll-mayo and mustard in packets on the side), pickles, a whole pear, a bag of Baked Lays Potato Chips, and a small container with a green salad and ranch dressing. I will admit that I am not a particular fan of the school lunch either, but it has two distinct advantages over the from home lunches. One, it actually has a sufficient number of calories to feed a child for an afternoon. And two, proteins, carbs, fats, as well as sugars that a child needs to function are all represented in the lunch.

The reason I bring all this up is that fairly often I see behavioral problems in children that I am willing to attribute to poor diet and the resulting sugar-fueled hyperactivity more than any other factor. I see the kids throw violent temper tantrums, demonstrate impaired cognitive function, and fall asleep in class when they run out of sugar and go into a mild hypoglycemic shock when they crash. This tends to be a daily occurrence.

This bugs me because it is an easy fix. A painfully easy fix. It does not take a Ph.D. in neuroscience to see that these kids’ brains are not working on all cylinders when they are starving. Ditto when they are on a sugar high. Below I will give an example of what I see and how behavior is altered.

A specific example

My example is from a field trip I went on. The kids were well behaved at first. Conveniently, they all received a bagged school lunch at our first stop, so they all had an even start. For some of the kids I was able to tell because their normal post-lunch uncontrollable hyperactivity was notably absent. We played on a playground for a while and then went on to our activity. During the activity, all of the children were bought a soda (24 oz. to boot). My back of the napkin calculations determined that the kids all drank approx 3/8 cup of sugar in slightly under 30 min. Some of them had family there that proceeded to purchase ice cream sundaes as well. I know all this because I wrote all of this info down so I could track behavior later on in the day. I am happy I had.

Well, within the hour the kids were bouncing off the walls and starting to severely misbehave. They were running into the areas they were specifically told not to investigate. They started to get moody and hit each other rather than to continue playing together nicely as they had not an hour before. And worse, their general social skills and adaptive function went out the door. Not good. Especially for a large group of autistic children. The bus ride home 2 hours later was even worse. Not a nice face or well-behaved child to be seen.

Worst part? All of this was entirely preventable.

Well my child won’t eat what I give him, So I give him what he will eat.

When I go into these topics I generally get notified that I have no idea how hard it is to have a kid that will not eat “normal” food. They have to give the kid what he will eat.

I call BS on this. My late twin brother would not eat anything green put on his plate. He literally threw peas at my sister for trying to give him 4 peas on his plate. That in no way prevented Kyle from eating pretty much everything else he was fed. If ever I was eating a piece of fruit (especially a pear) I had to be quick or he would swipe it out of my hands before it reached my mouth.

Yes. Kyle had a wicked sweet tooth and in hindsight I think we let him eat too much sugar. But that is why I am so quick to notice these dietary trends I am seeing in my students. We have to stop giving our loved ones excuses to eat poorly. Especially when they have a disability that already puts them at a disadvantage.

My advice is this: feed your autistic loved ones what they need, not what they want. Do this at dinner. Tonight. If they do not want to eat it, then they get to sit at the table and watch everyone else eat. Then, and only then, they can leave. If they whine for food or sweets later, give them their dinner from the fridge and make them eat it. If they tantrum, give them the food from the fridge and make them eat it. If they throw it all over the house, make them clean it up and then go hungry. That was their dinner. There is no other option.

This also extends to lunch. Now that it is summer, we can start training our kids for next year at school. Every day at lunch follow the same logic. Only provide healthy options, and wait them out until they eat it.

In my experience hunger will make them eat what you give them. Autistic kids are particularly stubborn, but they will eat, I promise. That and I promise they are not in as much pain as they are dramatizing. You just have to be patient enough to let your children realize that you are serious and they have no choice in the matter but to eat what you give them.

When the school year begins in August, either pack them a good, healthy lunch or pay for school lunch. This way, they will have the ability to perform in school and in life when they are well fed. Or at least they are given the chance to. It also lets you show you love them enough to do what is best for them.

10 thoughts on “Your autistic child’s diet influences their behavior

  1. I think that, for introducing autistics to new foods, a better option would be to ensure that they are capable of eating at least 2 foods from each food group, and to save the method you are suggesting (forcing the kid to have only one dinner option and that’s it) for circumstances where the family is actually at risk of starvation because no or few other foods are available. If they don’t eat at least 2 foods from a particular food group, one way to go about introducing a food is to introduce foods with similar sensory properties to those the kid is already eating, especially textural properties (say, quinoa if they already eat couscous, or a different breed of a food they already eat, such as a Fuji apple if they already eat Golden Delicious, or a colored boiled potato if they already eat potatoes – in fact, that is a good suggestion because autistic kids are sometimes wary of visual differences from food they normally eat as well), and certainly to introduce the freshest versions of certain foods whenever possible; food often tastes better when it’s fresh. Also, some foods, particularly pureed or even baked ones, allow for gradual alterations; say, if the kid eats mashed potatoes and you want to introduce sweet potatoes, add 1 teaspoon of sweet potato to their portion of mashed potatoes one time, and, after a few days, add 1 more teaspoon to their portion, so they are eating 2 teaspoons of sweet potato and so on and so forth until they are eating sweet potatoes willingly. This can also be used to reduce the amount of sugar in a serving of food a kid will willingly tolerate, or something similar. Autistics who have been told that they are stuck with one dinner sometimes have food issues later. Keep that in mind.
    Of course, even if a kid does eat at least 2 foods from each food group, it is a good idea to keep introducing different foods, carefully, and also not to pinpoint them if they do try it (the praise can make them shy and wary about trying new foods in front of people) and to allow them to play with the new foods. Playing with foods can help a child become acquainted with them and be willing to try them.
    Most importantly, you need to accept that there may be foods the kid will never like, especially because of sensory sensitivities like gag-inducing textures, overpowering flavors, or gut trouble and extreme pain (i.e. coughing reflexively) from a fairly small amount of spicy flavor, or even food intolerances that can range from mild (onions give a person gas, vegan soy products give one a slight stomachache especially when they have eaten it multiple times) to severe (i.e. celiac disease or lactose intolerance or even allergy to fruit or otherwise healthy foods), and as long as a kid has a reasonably varied diet, this shouldn’t be a problem; one can have a diet that is healthy and reasonably varied even if they hate a few entire sub-categories of food (i.e. fish, shellfish, leafy greens, bugs) – the hypothetical person with these examples may still be able to eat poultry, red meats, beans, apples, watermelon, peaches, potatoes, rice, broccoli, asparagus, several kinds of mushroom, carrots, and several other things as well.
    If you’re worried about starvation circumstances, keep in mind that if those happen while the kid is still a kid, you can always revert to the method suggested in this article, since one would have to risk potential trauma to ensure the kid’s survival right now, and if they are an adult, they can make pragmatic decisions to eat food that would normally make them gag because they know they need to do so to survive. Many people have done so before, with foods that nobody from that kid’s culture would raise their kid on.


    1. Thanks. I did oversimplify my argument quite a bit. Your method is better for highly persnickety kids.

      And I agree, there are foods some people don’t like. Forcing autistics to like all foods only makes as much sense as requiring 100% of the population love liver, cilantro, or wine. It is just not reasonable.

      Thanks for the 2 cents!


  2. Yes. many autistic kids (and adults) if not most of them, fall under the category of “highly persnickety”, me included. I have learned to work with those limitations and while yes, I do have a fairly large sweet tooth, and I also am highly sensitive to spice, I can also eat several fruits and non-leafy vegetables, including asparagus and America’s pet hate – broccoli, which doesn’t count as a leafy green to me, even though nutritional profiles sometimes count it as such (though definitely not raw tomatoes – even a fresh farmers-market one made me gag once – but I can eat tomato sauce, especially when mixed with meat or other veggies I like) as well as many kinds of fish and seafood – as long as a seafood isn’t raw, octopus, echinoderm, jellyfish, or nautilus (the latter of which is so disgusting even fish won’t eat it), I am willing to try it, several kinds of mushrooms, eggs, several cheeses, including Brie (which i am eating as I type this), and a few other foods besides. Sometimes, for those who have those kinds of limitations, it is a good idea to treat them like a food allergy or intolerance and simply find ways to work around it. Not everyone who has those problems will have a diet even as varied as my own, but it is possible to do so. They just need to go at their own pace, try things that they are willing to, and, if necessary due to severe deficiencies, be gently guided in expanding their palate to a minimally healthy level. For some, that might mean Pedialyte or something similar until their sensitivities either lessen, or until they are ready to work on that problem without severe distress.
    As for broccoli, I highly recommend introducing the stems first, not the florets – this oft-thrown out part of the vegetable is much milder and more kid-friendly than the florets are. Then the parent may be able to serve their kid the stems and themselves the florets (assuming the kid doesn’t hate the stems, too), and that’s a win-win – it cuts down on food waste, and it ensures the kid doesn’t have to eat the part of the broccoli that is, I am sure, considered the most “yucky”. My broccoli recommendation applies to any kid who hates broccoli, not just the highly sensitive ones.


  3. I think you might be underestimating the severity of the effects sensory issues can have on eating foods. “They’re not in as much pain as they’re dramatising” is really not the least dangerous option. Forcing a child to eat foods they find revolting on pain of starvation is cruel, and the “there’s not really a problem, they’re just kicking up a fuss” seems at a sharp contrast with the rest of your advice for disabled children.

    For me, I can’t even bear being in the same room as someone peeling an orange. It’s a miserable and highly aversive experience that leaves me gagging and desperately trying not to breathe. I was forced to eat orange-flavoured gummy vitamins for several weeks as a child (my mum tried to convince me they didn’t really taste like orange, which was a lie) and I used to lock myself in the bathroom and frantically brush my teeth with tears streaming down my face after. I mean, it wasn’t as bad as being forced into a scalding bath that was apparently fine for everyone else, but it’s up there.

    For an autistic person a certain amount of foods are likely to be really truly unbearable. This can make approaching eating a stressful experience, especially if you can’t really tell in advance what foods will make you want to take sandpaper to the inside of your mouth is compounded by being forced to eat repulsive things no matter how much you protest.

    The source of the “particular stubbornness” you’re seeing in autistic children is a legitimate issue. Yes, they’ll eat if they’re hungry enough. If you get hungry enough you’d eat food that was rotting – starving people do, even if they’d usually be repulsed by it. Autistic children are in a different place to NT children who just happen to be disinterested in carrots today. Yes, they’ll eat if they’re hungry, but there are acceptable and unacceptable levels of hunger to subject a child to. Missing several meals a week because no palatable food was provided is a problem – children don’t learn well when they’re hungry.

    Obviously parents need to ensure their children are eating a balanced diet and not just feeding them sugar, but they should take sensory issues and aversions to particular foods into account. Hard limits on sugar and making sure they eat fruits and vegetables are really important, and giving into whining for sugar after they haven’t eaten dinner is a problem, but “they’ll eat if they’re hungry” isn’t always guaranteed.

    This can be one of the things that takes a lot of parental effort – exploring food the parent doesn’t usually eat themselves (plenty of adults have very limited diets) rather than just shoving food in front of a child and demanding they eat it even if it makes them want to throw up. Being nervous about trying new foods is rational and reasonable if eg. 10% of foods taste like soap or feel like sand in a sandwich. Introducing foods gently (and repeatedly) and allowing children to talk about their food preferences and how they experience things, rather than the (honestly awful) experience of forcing them to eat foods they find repulsive is going to give a child a better relationship with food.


    1. I agree. I need to write an update to this accounting for autistics with profound sensory issues regarding food.

      I have never actually forced a kid to eat something they are actually averse to. I only have helped them discover that they can eat more than they thought. In many cases restricted diets are imposed by parents.

      With the specific situations you describe YOU ARE 100% CORRECT. In the end, eating is better than not and allowing a child to eat foods they are able to and unethical to withhold food to force them to eat a food chosen by a teacher or other adult.

      Thanks for the feedback. It is greatly appreciated.


  4. Thank you! I honestly didn’t think you would, you’re demonstrably capable of like, noticing when you’re upsetting a child and identifying that as a problem. It seemed like an oversight.

    Restricted diets imposed by parents are such a problem for autistic people – especially when it’s stuff like gluten free imposed without medical need. Lots of us struggle to find enough foods we can eat, and restricting that even further is a terrible idea.


    1. Yes, the thing I often notice that sort of gets me is that in addition to imposing diets upon autistics, we don’t ask the who what when where why or how dietary restrictions. In many cases I’ve known kids that just would not try new foods because of an underlying anxiety issue, rather than the dietary issues often associated with sensory needs or sensitivities we see among autistics.

      I also see a lot of parents for getting that, when you have a small developing child, you need to give a diversity of foods in so far as the child will except or you can actually cause restricted diet terry behavior among any child and their becomes issues with food becoming repulsive and textures that do not have a sensory basis for causing problems turning into something completely intolerable. And similar to how you described, the only way to move past this is to use methods that are straight out abuse.

      But I’m very happy you commented to call out what you saw as problems on this. I always like the people in the autistic community to honestly call me out on something that I’ve written because it points out where I have a gap of explanation for forgot to state something sufficiently clearly. It is also helpful because, although I have the mat and personally worked with hundreds of autistics that is at best a meager experience since I have yet to meet two people with similar enough needs I can just repeat my message without significant modifications.


  5. Came across this briefly and wanted to comment to reinforce Autisticalex’s comments above, and recommend the feeding principles described by Dr. Ellyn Satter, which I think would well address the problems of restricted diets of autistic kids, are broadly aligned with Dr. Hunacker’s general principles (and Dr. Ross Greene of “The Explosive Child” fame), as well as research-supported, practical and actionable (not complicated or esoteric), and sensible and appealing to me personally as a neurodiverse past picky eater, and a current part time carer for kids, some with special needs.
    (If only I could get their other carers to buy in! As with classroom/behavior management, consistency is key to learning, and inconsistency– especially inconsistency that inadvertently rewards escape and avoidance or misbehavior– is its downfall.)

    Principles of the Satter Eating/Feeding Competence model that are relevant here:
    *Follow a division of responsibility: carers provide healthful, diverse food at regular intervals (including planned, nutritional snacks);they are in charge of what, when, and where; kids determine whether, how much (of the provided options) they will eat.
    *Be “considerate without catering”: meals/snacks consistently include one or two nutritious foods acceptable or enjoyed by all the eaters as well as foods that are not (yet) liked; offer limited amounts of high-sugar/less-nutritive ‘treat’ foods.
    *Avoid pressure, coercion, restriction, bribery, or punishment, which tend to backfire and increase problems; provide positive, matter-of-fact experiences around food and eating, and trust that kids will learn to handle their part of the division of responsibility to meet their needs.

    Here’s a link to discussion of handling picky eating, including sensory issues:


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