Food and nutrition are subjects that kindergartener’s learn about, but somehow it is a topic that we struggle with for our entire lives. Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities are not exempt from this struggle. Research has shown that a third of individuals with autism are overweight and almost 20% are obese. While only 13% of their non-disabled peers suffer the same fate. The debate about the cause of this issue continues and may be different for different groups of individuals with autism. Regardless of the cause, this reality makes food choices and nutrition even more important for this population. While good nutrition is easily understood, it is not easy to implement.
To complicate things further, individuals with autism often experience sensory issues that interfere with their eating habits. During most of my son’s elementary years, he would enter the school cafeteria and start to gag. If he stayed, he would throw up within a few minutes due to the smell of the other student’s food. There was no food production in the school. All the students brought lunch from home and none of them noticed any noxious smells in the lunchroom, but for my son it was unbearable. Some individuals with autism can not eat crunchy foods, some cannot eat soft foods, and many cannot tolerate mixed textures. The intensity of these preferences goes beyond what they “want” to eat and becomes the only thing they can keep down. This does not mean that we should not try to improve nutritional choices, but it does mean we need to respect these issues. Additionally, all individuals, with and without disabilities, have the right to have access to all of their food at all times and to have a supply of good food. It is important to provide additional nutritious food choices without removing or limiting foods the individual is used to, even if they are not nutritious.
There are endless possibilities to provide these additional, nutritious food choices. Cooking classes are a great way to learn how to make new foods or old favorites with fresher, less preserved ingredients that are better for you. These classes may take the form of a provider taught class, a YouTube video recipe, a professional class in the community or a cooking show. We have found the kitchens in our corporate apartments make for a good place to teach when a kitchen is in use in the home. Nutrition is about adding to our independent life skills and expanding our palate, not about restrictive diets or giving up certain foods. Perhaps the most important part of nutrition is learning to have a healthy relationship with food and that needs to be the highest priority.