Eating Behaviours and Autism
The Primacy of the Relation between Food and
* Many autistic children display unusual/ odd eating
behaviours or eating-disturbances.
* Autistic children also have difficulties in using spoken
language for communication.
* Both eating and speaking involve the mouth.
The Early Feeding Experience
* characterised by 'early reciprocity' (Brazelton 1974) or 'primary intersubjectivity'
* dialogic turn-taking structure of burst-pause patterns during breast
-feeding (Kaye 1977)
* prototype of experience of discomfort being changed into comfort
through relationship with mother
* elements: food, warmth, empathy, physical and emotional containment
* weaning is an issue of mental development and interpersonal relationships
Unusual Eating Behaviours
* smearing, crumbling, … and other sensuous 'playing'
* stuffing mouth full and holding food for long periods
of time without swallowing
* refusing to bite/ chew food, but biting everything except
food, i.e. toys, books, etc.)
* refusing lumps and anything other than baby-food texture
* insisting on drinking all the time or drinking instead of
* throwing and discarding food
* eating non-foods or food off the floor
* non-eating eating = 'allows food to be taken in in an affectless way'
(Stroh 1977, 1986)
or as a non- or anti-mental activity
social cooperation, willingness to share, turn-taking
interest in choices/ preferences of other people, watching
self-conscious, e.g. feeling bad when told off, guilty,
relationships between child and feeder
with parent: worried, anxious, pushy, force-feeding,
of parent with food and eating
between parent and child
between parents about food and eating
with/ to other children
play/ symbolic play with food/ on plate/ …
What does the child eat? Texture, temperature, consistency, juicy, starchy, taste,
Does the child prefer eating or drinking?
New and unknown foods, soft and hard foods
When does the child eat? Are there set mealtimes?
Does the child want to eat all the time/ not at all?
Does child want to 'feed' all the time?
How does the child eat? e.g.: using teeth, chewing, sucking, arrangement on the
plate, playing with food, …
- interested in mixing, combining, keeping separate,
getting foods to meet, or not …
The Eating Situation
Body Where does the child 'put him/herself' when eating?
Where does the child eat?
Does the child sit down for eating?
Will he only eat wandering around?
How does the child use tools (fork, spoon, knife)?
How does child hold their body, move?
Mouth How does the child use their mouth in and outside of the
Does it involve putting different parts of the mouth together?
e.g. sucking, stuffing, holding food
Teeth biting, chewing, nibbling, crunching….
Tongue licking, tasting…
Saliva playing with saliva inside or outside the mouth,
covering food with saliva
Vocalisation e.g. vowels, consonants, syllables, melodies, words…
Speech e.g. in response to being spoken to, to request something
Eyes How does the child use their eyes?
e.g. glazed, watchful, vacant, anxious, inspecting…
Mind How does the child use their mind?
e.g. cut-off, withdrawn, engaged with food or environment,
connected, curious, interested, keen, bored, disinterested,
disengaged, negative, resistant, aware, enjoying, vacant,
defensive, apathetic, passive…
- motivation, concentration, attention,
- aware of expectations, self-discipline, taking
- making choices, trying to do 'it' well
- engaged in patterns, e.g. eating food in a particular
eating crunchy/ wet/ dry/ starchy foods, foods
eating only the inside, always the outside first
- does child sometimes have ideas, try different things
- does child play 'symbolically' with food? Will he feed a doll/
teddy? Like food faces or representing something?
Hands How does the child use their hands?
e.g. hand-eye-coordination, using tools, using 1 or 2 hands,
holding plate/cup, floppy, grabbing
Fingers poking, pulling bits off, pincer-grip, picking up, touching
Emotions e.g. emotionally aware, engaged, cut-off, anxious, greedy
Will child respond to someone's disgust, pleasure, …
Will child 'feed' an adult?
fears: of colour red, of…
How does child deal with conflict, aggression, ambivalent
Behaviour How does the child behave around and treat food?
e.g. smearing, spitting, throwing, grabbing, pushing
clamping mouth shut, stuffing, not swallowing,
not chewing, eating until sick, vomiting, 'stealing' off
What are the functions of + reasons for the unusual eating behaviours?
* enjoying sensuous unmentalised experience, and letting their mind fall apart
* afraid of/ not wanting anything new/ different to enter body/ mouth/ inside
* afraid of teeth and biting/ being bitten
* dismantling mental experience, letting mind fall apart
* not wanting to give adult the satisfaction
* fundamental conflict between the basic need to eat and communicate and the
fear of doing so
Elements of the Eating Situation
1. The Child
Body: sitting, standing, wandering
Mouth: mouth-cavity, teeth, tongue, saliva, vocalisation,
Hands: palm, fingers
Emotions: fears, pleasure, aggression, ambivalence,
motivation, disgust, greed
Behaviour: smearing, spitting, throwing, grabbing,
pushing plate away…
2. The Food
3. The Environment