Recipe for Success: Making Mealtime a Positive Event for Children with Autism

Eating is a daily activity many families enjoy together. However, for some children, mealtime can be an aversive event, one that causes unwanted behaviors. If your child refuses food, acts out during meals, is a picky eater, and/or eats at an inappropriate pace, you’re not alone. These are common mealtime challenges that parents can face with children with autism.

Here are some simple actions you can take right now that will help make mealtime in your home a positive event for your child and your family:

Look for setting events.

Setting events are events that make unwanted behaviors more likely in the future. When it comes to mealtimes, for instance, you can limit access to snacks prior to serving meals. It will help increase the likelihood that your child will be hungry when you sit down for a meal instead of refusing to eat.

Have a strong reinforcer ready.

A reinforcer in ABA therapy is anything that can be used to motivate and reward a child when they display a desired behavior. Have your child choose what they would like to earn. This can be anything from a small piece of a preferred food, iPad time, time with a preferred toy, or even verbal praise. Limit access to the chosen reinforcer outside of meal times to make it more effective.

Use a first-then statement.

Tell your child, “First bite, then (chosen reinforcer).” If your child takes a bite, provide the reinforcer immediately, along with verbal praise. If you’re using edible reinforcers, provide a small piece. If your child selects time with an iPad or a toy, give them brief access to it (around 20 seconds.)

Acknowledge appropriate communication.

If your child says, gestures, or points to “All done,” “No, thank you,” or something along the same lines, honor their communication. Show your child you’re removing the food for a brief amount of time (about 30 seconds). It’s important not to force eating, because the goal is to make mealtime a positive experience. After the 30 seconds has passed, represent the bite you want them to take and so on.

When you’re starting out, it’s okay if your child doesn’t complete the entire meal. Start small and slowly increase the amount of bites required for access to their chosen reinforcer.

Also, since all children are different, you may have success without using all these tips,  serving a whole meal at once, or providing less reinforcement. Take queues from your child and see what works best.

We hope these tips help to make mealtime a more positive event in your home. If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s behavior in any situation, our Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) are ready to lend a hand. We offer individualized, expert care for children as young as 18 months old, and our one-of-a-kind curriculum and learning environments make ABA therapy fun.

To set up an appointment and tour, call us at 972.312.8733. We look forward to hearing from you and helping your child and family reach their full, wonderful potential!

This blog entry was written by Allison Ross, BCBA

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