Rigid Eating Patterns in Autism: Examples and Recommendations

Updated: Jun 7

Photo by Chris A. Tweten on Unsplash

In this post, you will learn to recognize examples of rigidity in eating for those on the spectrum. Understanding what the characteristics of autism look like for each individual improves our ability to make good goals and provide appropriate support.

RIGID PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOR


One of the frequent characteristics of autism is repetitive and unyielding behaviors. There may be an insistence on specific details that the neurotypical person would deem of little importance. Sometimes, the rigid patterns occur within the context of eating.


RECOGNIZE RIGID EATING PATTERNS IN AUTISM: 3 EXAMPLES


1. FOOD PAIRINGS

One example of a rigid eating pattern is an insistence on pairing specific foods. Rather than creating a meal based on flavor combinations or nutritional ratios, the autistic may use stricter rules. For example, she may insist on eating pork paired with a side of applesauce but would never eat pork with rice (if applesauce were unavailable).

2. SYMMETRY, ANGLE, AND PLATING


For some, rigid preferences revolved around the shape, arrangement, or cut of items on the plate. A sandwich cut down the middle rather than on a diagonal may precipitate a meltdown. Likewise, an individual may show strong preferences about the symmetry of items on the plate or may not eat any foods that are touching.

3. ORDER AND SEQUENCE


The autistic may eat food in an unchanging sequence (e.g., "I always eat the food clockwise around the plate" or "I always eat the vegetable, then the carb, then the meat"). Another individual may take food apart and eat individual elements in a particular sequence (e.g., "When I get a sandwich, I always take it apart. I eat the cheese first, then the meat, and then the bread").

RECOMMENDATIONS

Although others may find strong eating preferences frustrating, the knowledge that the patterns have a neurologic foundation can increase tolerance. Rather than calling the individual "picky" or "ungrateful" about what's on the plate, we can provide validation for her unique experiences. In the end, acknowledging her preferences is supportive and unlikely to risk her health or wellness.




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