Atypical or unusual sensory responses are common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and often one of the earliest indicators of autism in childhood. A large percentage of children with ASD (78 to 90%) have sensory processing problems. Sensory issues are now included in the DSM-5 symptom criteria for restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (RRBs). These are mostly problems of sensory modulation expressed as hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.
When present, sensory problems may interfere with performance in many developmental and functional domains across home and school contexts, including daily living activities such as eating. Research suggests that extreme reactions or rituals involving taste, smell, texture, or appearance of food or excessive food restrictions are fairly common and may be a presenting feature of ASD. This includes “selective” or “picky eating,” which is defined as eating a limited variety of food and refusal to eat or taste new foods.
A study published in the open access journal, Autism Research and Treatment, examined the relationship between sensory processing and eating problems in children with ASD. A total of 95 Children with a diagnosis of autism, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), or Asperger syndrome, aged 3–10 years, were included in the study. They had at least one other associated condition; the most common being attention deficit disorder (23%), hyperactivity (22%), and intellectual disability (23%). Parents completed two questionnaires: (a) the Eating Profile, which was developed by clinicians and focuses on developmental eating milestones, mealtime behaviors of the child, such as eating autonomy and impact on the daily life of the family and (b) the Short Sensory Profile (SSP), a standardized questionnaire consisting of 38 items that help clinicians and researchers to quickly identify children with sensory processing issues (e.g.., typical response, probable difference, or definite difference).
The results indicated that 65 percent of children in the study showed a definite difference and 21 percent a probable difference in sensory processing on the total score of the Short Sensory Profile. Overall, children with “definite” sensory problems had significantly more eating problems than those with “typical” performance. Children with tactile sensitivity, taste/smell sensitivities, as well as visual/auditory sensitivities had significantly more eating problems than children with typical performance. For the total score of the SSP and for three sections (taste/smell sensitivity; auditory filtering; visual/auditory sensitivity), having a definite problem was significantly associated with a greater number of eating problems as measured by the Eating Profile. Although not statistically significant, there was a tendency for tactile sensitivity to be associated with the number of eating problems. These results could not be explained by age, sex, intellectual disability, attention deficit disorder, or hyperactivity.
The results of the study suggest that certain sensory modalities may influence the number of eating problems more than others. For example, children who were classified in the “definite difference” category on “tactile sensitivity” showed problems with the social behaviors at mealtime, as well as having unusual food preferences with respect to commercial brands, specific recipes, color, texture, or temperature of the food. These findings support an association of tactile defensiveness and food selectivity in children with ASD. Exploration through touching is a preliminary step to the introduction of new foods in young children. Children showing sensory defensiveness might be less inclined to explore foods with their hands. Others may have difficulties with the feel of utensils, the close presence of other children, or the routine clean-up after a meal.
Children with taste and/or smell sensitivity issues had mealtime problems. Similar to tactile sensitivity, they demonstrated problematic mealtime behaviors, but even more pronounced food preferences. This affected the eating autonomy more than tactile sensitivity, primarily in eating without assistance and using eating utensils, such as a fork. Auditory filtering affected these behaviors to the same extent as taste/smell sensitivities. This confirms the notion that eating is a complex multisensory experience.
A significant association was also found between visual/auditory sensitivity and the number of eating problems. Mealtimes can indeed be noisy during the preparation of food, including the manipulation of utensils and ongoing conversations. Even the sound of their own chewing can upset some highly sensitive children. Whether at school, or in child care, the noise level is usually above the one experienced in a child’s home. Likewise, children with visual sensitivities may react more to the visual stimuli of foods which may evoke unpleasant memories of their taste or texture. In typically developing children the visual exploration of food may actually facilitate the expectation of their taste/texture and thereby ease the acceptance of new foods.
Because sensory hyper- and hyporesponsiveness may be observable in infancy, these findings have implications for early detection and intervention and suggest that children with ASD may benefit from timely interventions focusing on the sensory components of eating. Although it remains to be determined how these issues might be specifically addressed in therapy, the frequency and severity of eating problems perceived by parents highlight the need for systematic evaluation of this daily living activity in combination with the sensory processing issues associated with food preferences and their effect on adaptive functioning (e.g., daily living skills). Consequently, an examination of mealtime behaviors might be included as part of the diagnostic assessment, including a sensory profile, in order to provide guidance to caregivers and parents.
Although therapeutic interventions to enhance sensory processing functions are popular in the treatment of ASD, the efficacy of these treatments is mixed and continues to be debated among researchers. Nevertheless, best practice guidelines indicate that when indicated, treatment programs for children with ASD should integrate an appropriately structured physical and sensory milieu in order to accommodate any unique sensory processing challenges. Of course, all interventions and treatments should be based on sound theoretical constructs, robust methodologies, and empirical studies of effectiveness. Different approaches to intervention have been found to be effective for children with autism, and no comparative research has been conducted that demonstrates one approach is superior to another. The selection of specific interventions should be based on goals developed from a comprehensive assessment of each child’s unique needs and family preferences. A more detailed discussion of assessment domains (e.g. communication, social, RRBs, sensory, academic) can be found in A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
Geneviève Nadon, Debbie Ehrmann Feldman, Winnie Dunn, and Erika Gisel, “Association of Sensory Processing and Eating Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Autism Research and Treatment, vol. 2011, Article ID 541926, 8 pages, 2011. doi:10.1155/2011/541926
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Dr. Wilkinson is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).