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Autism, ARFID and Eating Difficulties

Did you know that around 80% of people with ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) have eating difficulties? This is usually to do with sensitivity to the sensory experience of food. However, not every eating difficulty meets the criteria for ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder). It’s important to know what to look out for, and to reach […]
Autism, ARFID and Eating Difficulties

Autism, ARFID and Eating Difficulties

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Did you know that around 80% of people with ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) have eating difficulties? This is usually to do with sensitivity to the sensory experience of food. However, not every eating difficulty meets the criteria for ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder). It’s important to know what to look out for, and to reach out to health professionals, to make sure young people with ASC and/or ARFID receive the right support for them. Read on to find out more about Autism, ARFID and eating difficulties.

What is ARFID? 

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, more commonly known as ARFID, is a condition characterised by the person avoiding certain foods or types of food, having restricted intake in terms of overall amount eaten, or both. For more in-depth information on ARFID, visit our module or read our latest resource on supporting those with ARFID.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Condition and ARFID 

The eating patterns of autistic people with ARFID and those who have ARFID alone are similar for many reasons including:

  • Sensory sensitivities
  • High anxiety around foods/eating situations
  • Lack of interest in food

However, for autistic people (both children and adults) these issues can be more difficult to manage and treat. This is due to the additional difficulties and differences autistic people face day-to-day including:

  • More complex and heightened sensory sensitivities
  • More rigid and inflexible routines and rituals around foods
  • More difficulty recognising and responding to internal body states such as hunger or being full (known as ‘interoception’)
  • Social-communication difficulties can make it harder for autistic people to explain their difficulties with food, so it is harder for family, carers and friends to understand and manage the eating difficulties

Strategies to support someone with ARFID and Autism

  • Consistency in visual cues, such as packaging and brands, is important to those with strong visual processing. Some packaging/brands may be more tolerable than others.
  • “Homemade” meals could be difficult, as there may be variations in the taste, texture, smell, colour, size etc. – detail is important!
  • Some foods may be more tolerable in different environments and there may be conditional cues to eating foods e.g. eating chicken nuggets at school but not at home
  • Try to keep meal times and activities to a consistent time each day to reduce anxiety
  • You could try get a visual timetable to help you explain what happens at mealtimes and during the day to reduce anxiety
  • A visual meal plan could also support the young person to prepare for the meal
  • Look out for any early communication that could be non-verbal
  • Sensory preparation before mealtimes, such as playing with sensory-stimulating toys (play-doh, koosh balls, anything with interesting textures) or sensory-stimulating activities (bouncing on a ball, jumping, swinging etc.)
  • Distractions around meals – discuss with the young person and health professionals before trying this

What other eating problems might autistic people have?

A neurotypical person might see only eating certain food groups as “picky eating” but for an autistic person they may actually be attuned eating. In this way, they are responding to the body’s sensory needs, eating foods that feel safe and nourishing.

It is also important to be mindful of when an autistic person may be eating certain foods or tolerating sensory experiences to please others and fit in, when they are actually deeply uncomfortable and anxious.

Conclusion

Recognising the nuances of ARFID and ASC, and employing tailored strategies, ensures that those affected receive the right support to navigate their unique journey towards a more positive relationship with food.

For more information, check out our module covering eating difficulties and ARFID, and read our latest resource on supporting those with ARFID.

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