Lighthouse Autism Center Opens New Autism Center in Castleton, Indiana!

Therapy room at Lighthouse Autism Center with toys on a table with blue chairs and book shelves above

Lighthouse Autism Center Opens New Autism Center in Castleton, Indiana!

Lighthouse Autism Center Opening in Castleton, Indiana

Lighthouse Autism Center (LAC) continues to expand, with a network of centers in three states – quite a journey from its humble beginnings serving four families in one building to now serving hundreds of families across three states for nearly a decade It is truly amazing!

Our newest state-of-the-art ABA therapy center is now open, providing autism services to 60 children and their families and creating over 85 new jobs in the area. 

Our mission is to provide the highest quality autism services to children and families by opening our newest autism center in Indianapolis. Lighthouse Autism Center has committed to continuing our mission in Castleton, Indiana as the need for ABA services continues to grow. Lighthouse is determined to fill that need by opening new centers in underserved locations with facilities that can accommodate a larger capacity of learners, helping more families and children with autism, reach their goals.

Autism Center & ABA Therapy Clinic

With beautiful facilities that promote natural and play-based learning, and a team of highly trained and compassionate clinicians, Lighthouse Autism Center brings together compassionate care and clinical excellence to offer the highest quality ABA therapy to children with autism.

Autism Center for speech and language

With a unique clinical model called Lighthouse Fusion®, children at Lighthouse are making greater progress, faster, all while having fun. While other ABA centers typically keep ABA and speech therapies separate, Lighthouse Fusion brings these two therapies together into one enhanced therapy solution at our children’s autism center. We invite you to learn more about how this innovative clinical model is helping to unlock each child’s potential. 

To learn more about Lighthouse Autism Center or enroll your child, contact our Family Outreach Coordinator at 317-222-1242 or visit our website.

Castleton Center contact information

7526 E. 82nd St

Castleton, Indiana 46256

Family Outreach Phone: 317-222-1242

Don’t see an autism treatment center listed near you? Contact us and let us know the area you are in, and we will notify you when we have a center opening near you!

Find a Center Near You

Interested in finding an autism center near you? Click Find a Center below to view a full list of current autism therapy centers.

Lighthouse Autism Center Staff Spotlight: Abigail

Meet Lighthouse Autism Center’s Staff Spotlight of the Month: Abigail

Abigail is a Registered Behavior Technician at our Portage center. She has been with Lighthouse Autism Center since June of 2022 and is currently working towards her Associates Degree in Human Services and Social Work at Ivy Tech and anticipates graduating in August of 2023. She will then continue to study for her Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. Abigail loves to spend time with her family, go camping and play softball.

What made you decide to apply to Lighthouse?

I applied for the position at Lighthouse Autism Center because of the passion in my heart to be able to work and help children in ABA therapy! 

What is your favorite part of working at Lighthouse Autism Center?

My favorite part about working at Lighthouse is to see the success in each kiddo everyday, to see the smiles from kiddos you are implementing and the amazing bonds I create with my coworkers. Seeing each kiddo excited everyday and start to progress and master out of programs is an amazing thing to be apart of. I would describe my experience working at Lighthouse as comparable to being on your favorite vacation but staying there forever. I have experienced so much joy and support from each kiddo and staff member we have, it fills me with many happy tears. 

Do you have a favorite memory from your time here?

My favorite memory at Lighthouse Autism Center was when a kiddo had a group of us circle around and put our hands in the center, count to three and yell “Everyone wins!” This one experience has been a source of continuous positive reinforcement for our center to staff to keep us uplifted. It is amazing to see not only this experience but so many others have such a positive impact! 

What advice you would like to share for those interested in a career at Lighthouse Autism Center?

This is such a fun play based environment! To deliver high quality ABA each day is a success on its own. There is nothing better than to see successes with each kiddos with things like speech therapy, gross motor skills and even behavior analysis as a whole. This is the most rewarding and fulfilling job if you have passion in your heart to see children succeed! 

Ready for a career where you can make a difference?

Lighthouse Autism Center Opens New Center in Decatur, Illinois!

ABA Therapy Center in Decatur, Illinois

Lighthouse Autism Center (LAC) continues to expand, now with a network of centers in three states – quite a journey from its humble beginnings serving four families in one building to now serving hundreds of families across three states for nearly a decade. It is truly amazing.

Our newest state-of-the-art ABA therapy center is now open, our second center in Illinois providing autism services to 25 children and their families and creating over 40 new jobs in the area. 

Our mission is to provide the highest quality autism services to children and families by opening our newest autism center near you. Lighthouse Autism Center has committed to continuing our mission in Decatur, Illinois as the need for ABA services continues to grow. Lighthouse is determined to fill that need by opening new children’s autism centers in underserved locations with facilities that can accommodate a larger capacity of learners, helping more families and children with autism, reach their goals.

Autism Center for speech and language

Lighthouse Autism Center is the Midwest’s leading autism therapy provider. With beautiful facilities that promote natural and play-based learning, and a team of highly trained and compassionate clinicians, Lighthouse Autism Center brings together compassionate care and clinical excellence to offer the highest quality ABA therapy to children with autism.

With a unique clinical model called Lighthouse Fusion™, children at Lighthouse are making greater progress, faster, all while having fun. While other ABA centers typically keep ABA and speech therapies separate, Lighthouse Fusion brings these two therapies together into one enhanced therapy solution. We invite you to learn more about how this innovative clinical model is helping to unlock each child’s potential. 

To learn more about Lighthouse Autism Center or enroll your child, contact our Family Outreach Coordinator at 217-295-2491 or visit our website.

Decatur Center contact information

427 East Ash Road

Decatur, Illinois 62526

Family Outreach Phone: 217-295-2491 Don’t see an autism treatment center listed near you? Contact us and let us know the area you are in, and we will notify you when we have a center opening near you!

Find a Center Near You

Interested in finding an autism center near you? Click Find a Center below to view a full list of current autism therapy centers.

Tips for Spotting a Meltdown and How to Handle It

Autism meltdowns are often confused with temper tantrums but while they may appear similar, they are fundamentally different and require a unique approach. Discover the key features of an autistic meltdown and the best strategies to prevent, prepare, and recover from them.

How to Respond to Autism Meltdowns

Autism related meltdowns are sometimes involuntary responses to overwhelming/overstimulating situations, feelings, or environments. When an autistic individual becomes overwhelmed or overstimulated by a situation, they may experience extreme distress and temporarily lose control of their behavior. This can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response, making it difficult for the individual to regulate their sensory processing and behavioral responses. This could be expressed verbally (shouting, screaming, crying), physically (kicking, lashing out, biting), or in several other ways.

What triggers autism related meltdowns? The exact triggers will be unique to each person, and should be analyzed by specialists to come up with very specific responses, but triggers generally fall into the following categories: sensory overload, changes in routine, anxiety, and communication difficulties. 

Today, we’re taking a look at the key features of an autism related meltdowns and the best strategies to prevent, prepare, and recover from them.

Autism meltdown vs. temper tantrum

If your child is having an meltdown, it may look like a normal “temper tantrum”. It’s important to know, however, that while they may appear similar, a meltdown is not a temper tantrum and should not be treated as such. 

While tantrums are most common among neurotypical children, autistic individuals can experience meltdowns throughout their lives. Next, tantrums are generally goal-oriented and occur in response to an unfulfilled desire. In contrast, meltdowns are related to a trigger, and are often not a voluntary response. Finally, meltdowns are not “bad” or “naughty” and should not be punished. Remember that the child or individual experiencing a meltdown is in a state of overstimulation. They will require immediate support both before, during, and after.

This means that meltdowns are more intense, more emotional, longer-lasting, and more difficult to manage than the average tantrum. 

Qualities of an autism meltdown

There are a number of autism meltdown signs that can help you recognize when you’re dealing with a meltdown and take the necessary steps to either prevent it or support your child through it. 

Autism related meltdowns are characterized by the following features:

Meltdowns are preceded by signs of distress

Autistic meltdowns begin with warning signals such as external signs of distress. This includes physiological and behavioral changes, that can either be obvious or subtle. 

Meltdowns involve intense stimming

Signs of distress may include or progress to “stims” (self-stimulatory behaviors) such as rocking, pacing, finger flicking, and slapping. Stims are often self-calming techniques used to help regulate anxiety or sensory input. Intense stimming or other obvious signs of agitation indicate that a meltdown is imminent. 

Supporting your loved one during a meltdown

Once you’ve reached this phase, you’ll need to know how to calm an autistic child during a meltdown, rather than try to put a stop to it. During this phase, your child’s behavior may become explosive and uncontrolled. As such, it’s important that they are moved to a safe, quiet environment, that the triggers are stopped as quickly as possible, and that they are provided with both support and space to work through it in their own time and way. This is not the time to reason, redirect, or teach new lessons or coping skills.

Generally speaking, the focus should be on sensory and emotional support. This includes:

  • Staying calm and creating a safe environment.
  • Keeping your own frustration or distress in check.
  • Reducing verbal communication by using visual representations and “yes” or “no” questions.
  • Decreasing sensory stimulation by reducing sensory input in the environment (dimming the lights, turning off the radio/TV etc.).

Meltdowns can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the severity of the trigger and the way it is managed. Once you enter the recovery stage, your child is likely to feel vulnerable and emotionally exhausted. Your continued love and support are necessary as your child may be embarrassed or ashamed at their autism and anger outbursts. It is important to keep in mind that the meltdown was completely involuntary and to reassure them that everything will be okay. It is best not to discuss the incident immediately, as this could retrigger them, but to wait until they are fully rested, recovered, and calm.

Unlock your child’s potential with Lighthouse Autism Center

Explore more helpful autism resources available from the Lighthouse Autism Center. Here, you’ll also discover our innovative model and creative approach, Lighthouse fusion ABA therapy, which combines the best practices of behavior analysis and speech therapy to help your child progress in a safe, fun environment.

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

Developmental Preschool vs. ABA – Lighthouse Autism Center

When it comes to your child’s education and development, therapeutic preschool programs and ABA therapy are both valuable approaches. Read on to discover the key elements of both programs, how to adapt your child’s schedule to suit their needs and the benefits of combining various approaches.

Developmental Preschool vs. ABA Therapy

Whether it involves making cherished artworks or new friends, preschool is an exciting (and sometimes scary) time for children and parents alike. When your autistic child reaches preschool age, you’ll need to consider the different available schools for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Certain developmental goals for preschoolers need to be factored in and ABA therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy all play a vital role in helping your child develop the necessary skills to be able to reach their full potential.

In this blog, we explore the main differences between school-based and center-based learning and development programs in order to help you decide on the best course of action for your child. 

ABA treatment programs

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is an evidence-based therapy that has proven to be an effective and reliable method for developing and improving social, language and communication, learning, and daily-living skills in autistic children. It consists of two major treatment methods: discrete trial training (DTT) and natural environment training (NET). DTT teaches target behaviors through simplified and structured steps (similar to a typical classroom setting), while NET focuses on learning through play and social interactions. 

As part of an ABA treatment program, a therapist will evaluate your child’s skills, abilities, and challenges. They will then tailor an individualized program designed to maximize overall development and skill acquisition, while at the same time decreasing problematic forms of behavior that impede learning. Another component of this intensive therapy is parent training, which has been found invaluable by parents who want to learn how to better engage, teach and support their child. 

While this is undoubtedly one of the most effective special education options for children with autism, working 1:1 with a therapist may not provide educational opportunities associated with a classroom setting. 

Preschool programs for children with disabilities (PPCD)

PPCD are typically offered in the classroom of a public school under the supervision of a special education teacher and two educational associates. Classes usually consist of at most 12 children who have a variety of special needs, ranging from moderate to severe. During classes, children work on appropriate activities designed to develop and improve language, social, cognitive and self-help skills. 

This type of setting is highly conducive for socio-emotional development and affords children an opportunity to learn how to socialize with peers. When considering this approach it is important to keep two things in mind. First, that the setting must enable the child to catch up developmentally and second, that there will be limitations to the level of expertise of staff members compared to specially-trained therapists. Additionally, school-based programs alone do not allow for the frequency or intensity of training and supervision essential for quality programming, which may make the addition of more intensive forms of therapy necessary in order to achieve appropriate preschool developmental milestones.

Combining ABA and preschool

It should be clear, then, that both ABA therapy and PPCD can play a vital role in the development of autistic children. Which learning environment is best for your child will depend on their skill levels, needs and a number of other factors. In many cases, a combination of the two approaches can be successful. This may mean focusing on ABA treatment first, for one or two years before transitioning into preschool or even incorporating ABA into your preschool schedule by choosing a part-time preschool schedule followed by part-time ABA sessions.

The Lighthouse Fusion® approach

Fortunately, ABA therapy can be tailored to fit a wide range of autistic children’s needs, making it easy to work into a therapeutic preschool program. To make things even easier, Lighthouse Fusion ABA therapy introduces an innovative approach that combines ABA and speech therapy into one enhanced therapy solution. Our team of Board Certified Behavior Analysts and Speech-Language Pathologists work collaboratively with your child’s BCBA and RBT to incorporate speech therapy directly into daily ABA programs. So, rather than receiving 30 minutes of speech training a week, your child will benefit from daily opportunities for speech development, ultimately leading to better outcomes for your child. 

Discover more helpful autism resources from Lighthouse Autism Center.

What are Lighthouse Learning Programs?

At Lighthouse Autism Center, we offer center-based ABA therapy in a natural, play-based environment. Following an assessment, a program is developed specifically to target each child’s unique needs. With our Early Learner Program and Junior Learner Program, we incorporate many of the academic skills a child would be taught in a typical school setting, such as reading, math, group classes, peer play and more.

Early Learner Program

Generally, this program supports learners between 18 months and 6 years of age and focuses on learning through play. The skills learners acquire through this program will provide the building blocks required for them to generalize what they have learned across different subjects and environments. In the Early Learner Program, children focus on:

  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Letters, numbers, and colors
  • 2D shapes
  • Name and age
  • Listening skills and following directions
  • Children develop new words through song, music, and reading
  • Days of the week, months of the year, the weather, seasons, and more
  • Children participate in group classes like art, music, and gym

Junior Learner Program

Typically, this program includes learners 7 years and older and follows a similar structure to what a learner would see in a school setting. As the learner progresses through the program, they spend less time learning while playing, and more time learning from an educator while sitting at a desk or in a group setting, similar to what the learner would experience at school. In the Junior Learner Program, children focus on:

  • Reading development and comprehension at the appropriate level for the child
  • Basic math skills at an appropriate level for the child (addition, subtraction)
  • Life skills like folding laundry, hanging clothes, sweeping and vacuuming, etc.
  • Social skills including peer-to-peer interactions in a group setting

School Readiness at Lighthouse

  • Interacting in a Classroom
  • Playing with Peers
  • Listening and Following Directions
  • Participating in Group Classes
  • Fine and Gross Motor Skills
  • Eating in a Cafeteria-Style Lunch Room

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

Choosing Gifts for an Autistic Child

Choosing a gift for a loved one can be challenging, and this task is even harder for someone with special needs. We take a look at the different things you should keep in mind when choosing a gift for a young autistic person, and share some gift ideas as well.

What To Gift an Autistic Child

Choosing the right gift for someone can sometimes be pretty daunting. This undertaking can be even more difficult for parents, family members, or friends of an autistic person. To help you answer this question and choose a gift that they will love, take a look at our gift-giving advice below.

How to choose a gift for an autistic child or teenager

Regardless of their age, choosing gifts for autistic children or teenagers can be a challenge for various reasons. Some individuals with autism struggle with communication, meaning that if you ask them what gift they want (or don’t want), they may be unable to express their desires effectively. Others may have specific sensory needs that you need to factor in when picking a present. If these examples resonate with you, or there are other possible reasons making gift buying difficult, here are some tips that can help you pick the perfect gift:

When in doubt, ask

Even if the child or teenager you are buying a gift for struggles to communicate their wants, it’s usually a good idea to start by asking them. If this doesn’t work, you can always ask a parent (if they aren’t your child) or someone else who spends a lot of time with them, like a caregiver or a teacher, what they think. They may be able to give you valuable advice on what gift to purchase.

Work with their specific interests

When deciding what is a good gift for an autistic child or teenager, it’s important to have an idea of what their favorite hobbies or activities are. While some autistic children struggle with ADHD, others are hyper-focused on certain interests, sometimes to the detriment of other important things in their lives. Learn what their interests are and choose an appropriate item from that hobby or activity. For example, if the child or teenager has a passion for animals, consider getting them a stuffed toy of their favorite creature. You can make this gift even better by considering a weighted version of the same toy, as weighted items can help regulate their mood.

They may not like surprises

While many children love surprises, many don’t. This includes many young autistic people, who may become anxious or upset when presented with a surprise gift. This may be because they don’t know what is inside or simply because they don’t know how they should react. If you are unsure, ask a parent, family member, or caregiver how they might react. Consider avoiding wrapping the gift so the person receiving it can see exactly what it is.

Be careful to avoid anything that might overload their senses

Children or teens who have autism often struggle with sensory issues, which is why it’s important to carefully consider any gift to avoid picking something that might overwhelm their senses. This may be an audio sensitivity or discomfort brought on by bright lights or certain textures. It may be a combination of these and other sensory issues for some. For example, some may struggle with the sound of a toy car or even the wrapping paper that a gift is wrapped in.

Consider items from specialists

As awareness and education around autism increases, so does the number of specialists offering toys, autism resources and other items specially designed for an autistic child or teenager’s needs. So if you’re ever struggling to decide what to get an autistic child for their birthday or what to get an autistic child for Christmas, check a specialist store to see what it has on offer.

Even a well-thought-out gift may not be well received

Despite your best efforts, sometimes the young person you are giving the gift to may not react with joy upon receiving it. Some may have a neutral reaction, while others may share their disappointment or even unhappiness if it isn’t exactly what they expected. Even if you spent hours researching the perfect gift, you might discover it’s not the right brand or it isn’t right for their collection, which results in this response.

Gift ideas

While it would be nice to simply know what the best gifts are for an autistic 2-year-old, what are perfect gifts for an autistic 4-year-old, or even what you could buy for a teenager with autism that they will undoubtedly love, there’s, unfortunately, no guarantee when it comes to buying gifts for many young autistic people. A young person may be at a developmental stage that differs from their biological age. Moreover, their individual preferences will also play a major role in choosing a gift. This is why it’s so important to do your homework when choosing a gift for someone who has autism. 

That being said, here are some ideas for autistic children and teenagers that you may find useful and that they may enjoy.

For children

Here are some of the best gifts for autistic kids:

  • Chew toys – These chewable items are useful for an autistic child to calm down and self-regulate.
  • Fidget toys – From cubes to spinners to pop-its, there are a wide variety of fidget toys to help keep kids’ hands busy, while also developing their fine motor skills.
  • Sensory mats – These mats can be used to simulate the range of textures a child would experience in a more natural environment and can be a great way to expose a child to different surfaces and improve their cognitive functions.
  • Tangle toy – This is another toy that can be used to keep the child busy but can also help relieve stress through repetitive, twisting motions.
  • Weighted stuffed toys – Many children love stuffed toys, but weighted toys have an added advantage in helping children with sensory issues better regulate their moods and calm themselves down.

For teenagers

Here are some gift ideas for older kids and teenagers who have autism:

  • Board games – Board games are not only fun but are a great way for teenagers to develop their social skills, concentration, and many other faculties.
  • Crash pads – Crash pads can be a great way for young folks with sensory issues to have fun and develop their sensory awareness.
  • Hanging cocoon chairs – Apart from being extremely comfortable, hanging cocoon chairs can help teenagers calm themselves by creating a sensory “cocoon” around them.
  • Noise-canceling ear muffs or headphones – These are beneficial to anyone who is sensitive to specific sounds and can help lower anxiety levels of those who are sensitive to noise.
  • Sensory lamps – At a glance, these might appear like lava lamps to most people, but these sensory lamps can provide a calming effect on autistic people.

Happy gift shopping!

We hope our advice and gift ideas have provided you with a good starting point to purchase a present for your autistic friend, family member, or loved one.

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

Winter Activities for Your Child with Autism

Autism-Friendly Outdoor Activities

Winter in the Midwest is often unpredictable, cold, and filled with snow. For parents, finding winter activities for your child with autism can be a challenging. While the snow can be a fun and welcome activity for children, other times, the bitter cold can prevent children from playing outside. So, how do we keep children and children with autism busy during the cold winter months?

Outdoor Activities

When the temperature is a lovely 35 degrees (which is quite warm in this area during the winter months!) and there is a fresh blanket of snow, here are just a few activities to try with your child with autism.

  • Build a snowman – this can be a wonderful activity that your child can do independently or as a family. Consider building a replica of a favorite character or naming your snowman. Be sure to always explain that a snowman is only temporary and will melt when it gets warmer!
  • Sledding – get your child active by finding a park (be sure to find a safe space!) where your child can enjoy a trip sledding down a hill. A favorite past-time of most, this is sure to be something your child with autism will enjoy as well. Consider getting a sled big enough for two people so your child can sled with the assistance of an adult.
  • Frozen Water Balloons – fill balloons with different color water (just add food coloring!) to make a fun and beautiful display in your yard. Fill the balloons with water and place them outside. Within a few hours you should have a beautiful display of frozen water.
  • Make Snow Angels – this can be a great sensory activity in the winter for children with autism!
  • Take a Drive – go look at all the Christmas decorations in your neighborhood.
  • Go for a Nature Walk – being outside in the winter can be one of the most calming activities for children with autism. It provides them an open space to run, play and explore without the stimulation of indoor environments. If the temperatures are agreeable, bundle up and head outside to a nearby park or trail.
  • Paint the Snow – a fun and creative alternative to playing in the snow is to paint it. Simply fill some squirt bottles with water and food coloring (make sure you use a lot!), then turn the snow into your canvas.

Indoor Activities

When the weather turns bitter cold or there are several inches of snow on the ground, you may find your child’s school closed and a house full of children. Here are a few ideas to keep your child with autism (and all of your children!) occupied when they are stuck inside:

  • Pajama Day – consider letting your child have a lazy day in pajamas. Make them their favorite breakfast and let them watch a favorite movie or TV show.
  • Mall Visit – If the kids (and you!) are itching to get out of the house, take a trip to the mall. Make a game of walking around the mall to get some steps in and energy out. If you are able, let your child pick out a new toy or item once you have done so many trips around the mall.
  • Movie Day – this can be done at a local theater or at home. If you want to get out of the house, take advantage of discounted matinee prices and take the kids to see a favorite movie. Pop some popcorn at home and bring that jumbo size purse to provide some affordable snacks at the theater.
  • Indoor Snowball Fight – you can buy fake snowballs or create them using crunched newspaper.
  • Make Pretend Snow – bring the snow inside by combining 2 ½ cups of pure baking soda with ½ cup of conditioner in a bowl and mix together. Show your child how to make snowballs and build a snowman together inside! Show them how to play with this new texture and encourage them to tell you what they are thinking as they touch and shape the pretend snow. This is a great sensory activity for your child with autism.
  • Build an Indoor Fort – gather your sheets, blankets, cushions and pillows for a magical afternoon at home. You can even create a “fort kit” box for that very purpose. Prepare your child’s favorites a snacks, read a few books, and even encourage a nap – everything is more fun in a fort.

For children with autism, on days when school or an ABA therapy center is closed, be sure to do your best to keep a routine and follow through on skills and activities they are working on at home. ABA is meant to be consistent, and can only be successful if parents do their best to practice many of the same ABA skills that your child does at their ABA center at home.

Additional Resources:

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

Tips for Picky Eaters and Introducing New Foods

Children with autism may be labeled picky eaters, but the truth is that they face a unique set of challenges around mealtimes. Discover helpful tips on introducing new foods and expanding your child’s diet in a way that is more enjoyable for everyone at the table.

Tips for Introducing New Foods and Healthy Eating Habits

If you’re tired of googling “best foods for picky eaters” and ending up frustrated after mealtimes, it may be time to take a different approach. People with autism may be sensitive to the taste, smell, color, and texture of foods. Because of this, they may limit or avoid particular foods or even whole food groups. 

Of course, you already understand the importance of consuming a well-rounded diet with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Recent studies have shown that children with autism-related symptoms are five times more likely to demonstrate atypical eating behaviors, including narrow food selections, ritualistic eating behavior, and meal-related tantrums, which can make getting the necessary nutrients a challenge.

Today, we’re looking at how to expand your child’s food choices by addressing underlying anxiety, inflexibility, and sensory issues. We’ll share some of our best picky eater tips for parents to help reduce problematic mealtime behaviors and the stress that accompanies them. You might even be inspired with a few school lunch ideas!

Picky eating vs. food rejection

While it’s common for autism to affect your child’s eating habits, it’s important to understand that there is a significant difference between what is colloquially considered “picky eating” and the unique challenges that children on the autism spectrum face. Most children, especially toddlers, go through stages where they refuse certain foods because of taste, smell, or texture. Generally, this is something they grow out of. 

Children on the spectrum, however, aren’t just “being difficult.” Problematic mealtime behaviors may be a result of sensory issues, underdeveloped oral motor musculature (which makes certain textures troublesome), GI issues they aren’t able to communicate, the need for routine, or challenges with trying new things in general.

Another factor that contributes to the idea that autistic children are picky eaters is the myth of “high functioning autism,” which suggests that an individual who excels academically or is socially competent has “high function.” However, autistic children with high intelligence or excellent social skills are still likely to struggle with daily tasks like brushing their teeth, making decisions, or telling time. When children seen as “high functioning” struggle with eating certain foods, their behavior can be misconstrued as merely “being difficult.”

If left untreated, unhealthy mealtime behaviors may continue to escalate. Parents are often overwhelmed by a number of challenges at the same time. These issues may take precedence over feeding difficulties, and parents may find themselves relying on the few foods their child is willing to eat to avoid negative backlash. The longer feeding issues are allowed to continue, however, the more difficult and time-consuming it may be to help your child develop healthy eating habits.

Everyone knows how challenging changing your eating habits can be, and this is especially true for autistic children. Because they may hyper-focus on certain foods while refusing to try others, both behavioral therapy and nutritional therapy may be necessary. This will help adjust symptoms that may otherwise become maladaptive behaviors, as well as ensure you are working towards a well-balanced diet.

Ruling out medical issues

Common gastrointestinal issues associated with food rejection include acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea, and eosinophilic esophagitis. Autistic children are just as likely to suffer the same GI disorders as other children, but the difference is that they may not be able to localize or verbalize their discomfort. If a child senses or fears that a specific food may trigger pain, they are likely to refuse it, become suspicious of it, or throw tantrums. 

This makes it important for parents to be proactive in discovering the source of their child’s discomfort. A pediatric gastroenterologist can help rule out medical issues.

Techniques for expanding your child’s diet

1. Start small

Your child most likely has a select few favorite foods. When introducing new foods, or previously rejected foods, you can create a positive association by introducing minuscule amounts of these foods alongside their pre-established favorites. The first time, they may not necessarily eat the food, but they can still get used to its presence and appearance. Even if they don’t want to try it, you can encourage them to touch, smell, and explore the food. The next time, you might ask them to try a single bite and praise them for being willing to try.

2. Try desensitization practices

If your child has strongly rejected a certain food, but you feel it is necessary as part of a healthy diet, or it’s a staple in your household, you’ll need to reintroduce the food even more slowly, using a desensitizing technique. For example, if your child hates apples, start by placing apples in the house. Next, bring an apple into the room during playtime. This way, they can get used to the food without having to eat it. After a while, you might place some apples on the table during meals without requiring them to touch or eat them. Next, put a slice of apple on their plate. When they are okay with the apple slice on their plate, and their original feelings of aversion have been resolved, invite them to try a bite.

3. Offer choices and control

No one likes to be told what to eat, and sometimes, your child will simply not like a food – this is completely natural. To accommodate this and give your child the opportunity to exercise healthy control, offer a wide variety of choices (within the necessary categories that form a well-balanced meal), and allow them to decide. For instance, when choosing dinner, allow your child to choose one ingredient from a variety of vegetables, starches, and proteins. If you’re making a curry, stew, or pasta dish, ask them to add one “mystery” ingredient to the dish for the other family members to discover. They might choose chicken, broccoli, or beans, for instance.

4. Adjust textures

Hypersensitivity to textures is a common occurrence in people on the spectrum and can show up during mealtimes. Often, it’s the way a food feels in the mouth, not its flavor, that produces a strong aversion to certain foods. The crunchy texture of an apple or the squishy texture of a freshly sliced tomato is a classic example. Luckily, there are a multitude of ways to prepare foods and also a variety of healthy substitutes. Pears, for example, are much softer than apples, and apples could also be served stewed. Tomatoes can be blended or chopped finely into salsa or cooked into a sauce and served over pasta or as a dip for potato wedges.

One of the best ways to get picky eaters to eat veggies is to prepare them in a new and exciting way or work them into other dishes where they are not as easily distinguishable. For example, you could grate zucchini into oatmeal, add broccoli to homemade chicken nuggets, or blend leafy greens into smoothies without anyone noticing.

5. Set realistic goals

Mealtimes shouldn’t be a battleground, so be sure to manage your emotions, adjust your expectations, and set realistic goals. Many children need to taste a food more than a dozen times before they’re willing to eat it without any fuss. Autistic children with food aversions may take longer, so be sure to practice patience and create a safe environment for your child to explore new foods. 

There are likely a number of behaviors that require some practice when it comes to mealtimes, so rather than trying to correct them all within a single meal, break them into individual goals. Then prioritize those goals and address them one at a time. Are you trying to increase the variety of foods your child consumes? The amount they eat? Correct disruptive behavior at the table? Identify your primary target, make the target known to both your child and other caretakers, and focus meals on progressing in that area. 

If, for instance, your child barely eats two or three bites at a meal, it’s unreasonable to expect them to clear their plate, and it’s probably not the best time to start introducing new or previously rejected foods. Instead, try increasing their intake by one bite per meal, and be sure to praise their success rather than piling more expectations on them because you think the meal is going well.

Lastly, expect a certain amount of resistance. This might include crying or whining, verbal aggression, and/or disruptive behaviors. The presence of these things doesn’t mean you’re not making progress, so adjust your expectations accordingly and don’t give up or give in.

Other things that can help reduce anxiety around mealtimes include:

  • Role modeling healthy eating behaviors
  • Consistent and enjoyable mealtime routines
  • Making changes to how you prepare and/or present previously rejected foods
  • Playing with and exploring new and/or previously rejected foods
  • Praising every sign of progress, no matter how small

Take a multifaceted approach

Like many things, it may take a multifaceted approach to see a significant difference when it comes to picky eating and autism. With time, consistency, and patience, however, you and your little one are sure to experience incredible progress.

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