Sensory Eating is not Picky Eating

I want you to imagine that you are a kid once again, maybe ten or eleven years old. You are sitting down in the evening with your family for dinner. The table is set, and your parents bring out what will be tonight’s entree: a cut of cold, raw chicken breast. It’s slimy pink mass slides onto the plate in front of you, and soon after your whole family is chowing down on the raw cuts of meat. You can’t stand to even watch anyone else eat the raw chicken, let alone fathom yourself choking it down. Yet, despite the very real disgust and aversion you feel towards the raw chicken breast, somehow it’s you who are strange for not wanting to eat it. Maybe you’re called “picky” or told that you simply need to and just learn to enjoy raw chicken like everyone else. Maybe you go hungry every night at dinner because the only thing being served are items as aversive as the cuts of raw chicken.

Raw Chicken White Meat prepared for frying
Yummy yummy! Three raw chicken breast cuts on a white plate.

A slab of raw chicken sounds completely viscerally repulsive, doesn’t it? It’s not something that you simply “don’t like,” it’s something that you would actually have a physical negative reaction if you were ever try to eat it. I’m using this analogy to demonstrate what it’s like for a lot of autistic people who have sensory aversions to many common foods.

I’m not alone in the autism world in that I have a really hard time with food. There are very few things that I can eat, as my sensory system is tuned differently than most other people’s, and so I find many common foods to be just as repulsive as a slab of raw chicken. This isn’t a matter of simply “not liking” certain foods. I have a strong sensory aversion to most foods.

Before we get any farther, I’d like to make it clear that I didn’t make up the raw chicken analogy. That distinction goes to Cynthia from the amazing Musings of an Aspie blog, where in this post she uses the analogy in the same way I am here to demonstrate the difference between a sensory aversion and simply disliking something. I highly recommend said blog post.

But here I’d like to re-state the point that there is a distinct difference between having a sensory aversion to a food and simply disliking a food. You see, there is a very limited number of different food items that I can tolerate eating. However, this is not simply because I’m a “picky eater” and only dislike these food items. No, I have an aversion to these foods because I am a sensory eater. My limited diet is due to the fact that, because of my atypical sensory system, many common foods are just as repulsive, on a very deep visceral level, as that slab of raw chicken.

This is something that I see a lot of people getting wrong all the time. They might think that my limited diet is due to me simply being too stubborn or to picky or whatever else when instead it is due to a specific difference in how I process sensory input. It’s not that I simply dislike most foods or refuse to try most foods, it’s that I literally have a biological, sensory based reaction to most foods. I am not a picky eater. I eat based on what fits my sensory profile. I am a sensory eater.

Asian Child Girl With Expression Of Disgust Against Vegetables I
A stock photo of a young girl covering her mouth and closing her eyes in disgust as two forks with vegetables on them are extended towards her.

As stated above, I am certainly not the only one in this regard, in fact sensory food sensitivities are a fairly “trademark” part of autism. If you’re autistic you should probably know this, and if you’re a parent of an autistic kid you should also probably know this. You should know that typical parenting advice for picky eaters like “keep serving it until they like it” doesn’t work on autistic kids. Yes, we may starve before eat non-sensory friendly food because it’s not picky eating, it’s sensory eating. (There’s my ProTip for the day).

For me, like many autistic people, how something feels in my mouth is much more important than taste or flavor. The texture, temperature, and consistency has to be within a very narrow range or else my brain will “reject it” on a sensory basis. (I hope that makes some sense, I’m having trouble figuring out how to explain this to readers who may not have the same sensory experience as I do). For some autistic people their greatest problem with food comes from smell. It turns out the inside of your mouth is covered with smell receptors, and so for many autistic people a lot of food gives them olfactory sensory overload because it’s too smelly in their mouth. I’m actually not particularly sensitive to smell so I don’t have this exact problem, but I’ve heard lots of autistic people bring this up as an issue.

Because of my sensory profile, there are, maybe if you stretch the definition of what is a separate food, two dozen things I can eat. I cannot do any sort of red meat, the texture and consistency is not right. I eat a lot of chicken, but pretty much only in nugget or strip form because if it’s not deep fried and/or packed together then the meat is too slimy or of the wrong consistency, which is a no-no. I’ll eat fish if it’s cooked right, I like fish n’ chips and salmon fillets, but the fillets have to be done in such a way that it’s firm. I like other kinds of seafood like shrimp, crab, and lobster, all right out of the shell, I don’t tend to have sensory issues with crustacean meat. Seafood is my favorite type of food because I can more of it than I can other types of food. I can’t do any type of cooked vegetable, the consistency causes problems, but I do like crunchy vegetables like celery, carrots, etc. There are some fruits I enjoy like firm apples and grapes and others I can’t eat due to consistency issues like strawberries or pineapple. I’ll eat some pasta, but pasta is limited by the sauce people put on it, so that’s pretty much just mac n’ cheese or some sort of alfredo. I’ll do cheese pizza, but only cheese pizza. Also, I like bread. At thanksgiving I pretty much only eat rolls. The reason, I think, that I generally do processed foods is because they are, by design, consistent, and I need consistency in what I’m eating.

So yes, there it is, my entire diet in one paragraph. I’m actually very proud of all the things on this list, because it’s taken me almost eighteen years of a lot of anxiety and painful trials to figure out everything to fill out this list with. There was a time when I could count on one hand everything I would eat. I subsisted pretty much entirely on mac n’ cheese and french fries. So, despite the comments people make to me about how my diet is limited, or I eat the same thing for every meal, or whatever else, just know that I’m proud of myself for finding something I can eat to fill out every group on the food pyramid, because that by itself was a monumental feat and I honestly consider it one of my greatest accomplishments. I am that impaired when it comes to food and eating.

That’s why it makes me incredibly sad, frustrated, and even angry to hear a lot of the things some people say to me about my diet as a sensory eater. When people make comments to me about “you don’t know what your missing” or “you’d like it if you’d just try it” or “I wish you’d just eat” or “your life would be so much better if you’d eat more foods” it makes me feel very frustrated because it’s already taken my quite literally my whole life to get to where I am now. I can not tolerate a lot of foods because of my sensory profile and I’d rather people just accept that this is a limitation for me instead of making comments like the above every time we go to eat something. I assure you I am NOT missing out because I won’t eat a steak. And, for the record, I am perfectly fine with eating the same or similar things every day. It really does not bother me, and in fact I prefer it because the similarity is comforting.

Also, it makes me feel incredibly left out when people say things like “well I’d like to eat here, but Quincy won’t eat anything there, so I guess we won’t go.” Or when I ask someone what they want to eat, and they reply back with “don’t ask me, you’re the one who’s hard to feed!” It makes me feel sort of disappointed in myself and excluded when people make comments about how “difficult” I am with food. Please, just pick something and I’ll make it work if not now then later, but do not make offhand comments about what I can and can’t eat or how “hard” it is to find food for me. Please.

Apologies for that personal note at the end, this blog is an important means of communication for me and so I wanted to make my frustrations clear. However, biggest thing I want anyone who reads this to pull out of this article is that picky eating is not the same as sensory eating, and as with most things, it’s best to work with the autistic person within their sensory profile rather than against them to try to get them to eat the foods they find repulsive.

 

37 thoughts on “Sensory Eating is not Picky Eating

  1. Thank you for so clearly describing your victory!
    The few contacts I have had with autism & their families helps me understand you always must deal with “sensory overload” of one kind or another.
    Thank you again for your courage – & keep blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello! Some of the things you describe are exactly what I’m dealing with with my son and you expanded on things I hadn’t realized like the processed foods needing to be the same and the fruits! That makes perfect sense. Is there any way to talk with you further? I would love for my son to get to where you’ve gotten!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your story and how you have come so far. I am an occupational therapist and the population i serve are the little guys under 3 (early intervention). Most of my caseload are kids with sensory and feeding problems. I think you are so right when it comes to aversions/picky eaters. 85% of my kids eat the same 3 things then interchange among them. Through sensory activities with various textures, I slowly start desensitizing their sensory systems (olfactory (smell) and tactile (touch/feel) which i found has helped these kids be more accepting of new foods pending on textures. Along with with oral activities. What i tell parents early on, is allow your kid to smell, touch, and play with food as early as possible 6 months. Even if they dont eat it, thats ok. Never force feed. I do activities using plain food (stringing pasta, counting peas, using tongs to pick up cooked pasta), then slowly add ingredients with smells (pasta sauce, cheese macaroni, butter/garlic, dressings) and continue with same play routine. This is not a change that can occur over night, it can take months until the kiddo will hopefully some day place it in his mouth. if not thats ok too.

    I think we all have some kind of sensory anything going on… its when the sensory gets in the way of every day life, when it can become a problem. For example, i can’t stand the smell of any seafood, NOTHING, my mouth starts to water instantly. I also can not walk barefooted on any surfaces even in my own home. I always have socks or shoes/flip flops on. I see my husband walk barefooted on the lawn, wish i can do it, ive tried but i start getting nauseated. Family vacations to beach are tough for me, i don’t like the feel of sand on my feet let alone between my toes.

    I just wanted to share… Have a great day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Quincy!
      Thanks for writing this blog. I have a sensory eater in my hone at present. Can you please point us to more information? He has foods he used to eat but now refuses them.

      Like

      1. Hi, Michelle,

        It’s actually very common for kids to refuse foods they once ate as sensory profiles change over time, especially after the toddler-age years as the brain further develops.

        It’d be great if you emailed me at qhan5445@gmail.com. I can’t really provide a whole lot of info with information so vague, so it’d be good if we talked more in depth.

        From what I’ve heard in responses to this post, apparently Occupational Therapy can help widen sensory profiles with food, so you might want to look into that if they’re not able to even get the nutrition they need from food.

        Definitely stay away from any kind of behavioral therapy, that’s a bad idea for any autistic kid really.

        Also, don’t try to force feed. You definitely don’t want to associate trauma or stress with food, that will only cause bigger problems later.

        Again, feel free to email me so we can talk more in depth.

        -Quincy

        Like

  4. Reading your blog is very timely Quincyz thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. This totally makes sense to me now, I’m finding as my son gets older I am noticing more and more little things. Tonight at the dinner table was one of them when I had slow cooked a chicken, instantly when he came home from school the smell hit him wow big reaction (I thought, it’s a delicious smell) he was almost wretching. I hate chicken like this I only like chicken nuggets! What a state he was in trying to eat it, oh my goodness you have helped me understand tonight and many more times similar to this. Thanks a million. Love Amanda xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for your article; it’s very informative and helped me to appreciate what you go through….it was interesting that you mentioned finding the same food choice as familiar and comforting; I think this is the same for us who enjoy “comfort food.” Anything creamy I like, and especially ice cream….but mashed potatoes, if made with milk in the mix is a bonus for me…I’ve had it without that style of preparation….just not the same! Love the creamy texture. While it’s my son who is on the spectrum, I find that he will let me know what he likes — and I appreciate your sharing about the impact restaurant selection has on you with those who will make choices. Well said. You are giving me and others insights into your thoughts and choices….and we all need to hear that. Please keep writing…..you are so articulate and I appreciate your sharing your perspectives — sensory and beyond!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much for sharing. Your insight is really helpful in understanding my son’s struggles. I don’t push him on food because I have seen him starve instead of eating something he struggles with so I have always known it’s not ‘picky eating’ like you talk about. He is still young and struggles to communicate what he likes/doesn’t like and why but this encourages me that one day he will be able to articulate it and gives me knowledge to help him in the meantime, thank you again!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Love your writing style! I do not have autism but I have entrenched myself in the aspire world. A friend has an autistic 22 yr. old son. She has left behind her profession (OT) to open a thrift store, Autism Awsreness Shop,
    (aastampa.org) so her son can work (as he does now)& be self sufficient after she & her husband die. We provide employment skills training there for the autistic community. I volunteer as Community Liaison.
    I launched a recruitment agency, Bosley Enterprises Unlimited, (beutampa.org)
    serving neurodiverse & the businesses interested in developing & /or strengthening diversity & inclusion initiatives. I am also on the Board of the Autism Society of Florida where we support the autistic community in myriad ways, most importantly legislatively. I would like to know your thoughts regarding if you are interested in becoming involved w/ any of the above named projects.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your story. I completely understand the frustration when people comment in such a way. I get embarrassed and frustrated when I go out to eat with friends and the menu is full of things I can not stomach to eat. My boyfriend has also made the comments about how “hard it is to feed me” when honestly I can take care of myself anywhere we go to eat. *hugs* stay strong, you be you. We dont live our lives to not enjoy the food we put in our mouths. It took me 38 years to figure that out and if someone thinks I’m too “picky” well they can stuff it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you I have been berated for the food I eat my whole life. Even now at 39 my father still offers me food I don’t eat and says really you still don’t eat this. It’s so annoying but reading your blog it’s more than that it does give me that sense of failure.
    Going to boarding school the quickly figured out if they made me eat what I didn’t want to I would vomit at the table. Only a few weeks and I was allowed to choose what I would eat! I now have a sensory eater too!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you! this describes my son and i am proud you got where you are at…. can I ask how did you manage to try more foods? I am worried from a nutritional standpoint but I refuse to force him to try foods as it usually involves lots of gagging and crying. I’m glad to read I am not “indulging” him but rather being compassionate. I do wish he would try new foods so sharing what helped you try new foods might help me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Nancy!

      Ultimately, what got me to try new foods was just time. Every once in a very rare while I’d say “that smells good, maybe I’ll eat it,” and try it. The best advice I can give is just to wait and give him time and eventually he should expand. This is the narrative I’ve gotten from the people who have mentioned it in regards to this post, and that’s what happened to me. Keep in mind also that sensory profiles can change, so your son might be able to tolerate more foods in a few years (or perhaps start to not tolerate ones he likes now). Apparently there’s occupational therapy that can help with food sensitivities too.

      If you’re worried about nutrition, you could try non-traditional ways to get them to him. For example, if he can drink smoothies you can blend smoothies with fruits and vegetables. Or you could try to sneak stuff in (apparently my mom used to sneak squash into my Mac and cheese) though honestly this feels pretty deceptive and you might lose trust points with your son if he figures that out. Or, at the very least, there are crunchy chewable vitamins he might take.

      As always, best not to traumatize him with food, apparently this leads to more problems down the road, so good job on not forcing it!

      You can email me any questions you have at qhan5445@gmail.com.

      -Quincy

      Like

  11. Thank you for sharing. My daughter is autistic and highly sensory but not able yet to describe why some foods are so problematic and why some work (although I’ve been able to make guesses along the way). She eats very little meat and I’ve long suspected that it’s about consistency issues (and because she doesn’t like foods that fall into her chewy category like meat and pasta). It was really interesting to read your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Quincy, thank you so much for sharing this! I know my grandson, Tyson has an aversion to certain foods and he’s 5. The raw chicken analogy is a great way to explain it! He has a few foods he eats and it never varies. We try to add other choices daily and some days he surprises us! He used to love regular cheese pizza, but now the sauce is too much. The first time we ordered cheese pizza without sauce, the order taker looked at me like I was crazy. I said he simply does not like the feel or smell of the sauce. But he loves cheese and he loves cheese pizza, so just do it. He totally does not like regular bread, but if it is cooked or toasted, he eats it. And he has regressed in his eating from what he used to eat, to what he eats now, some are due to medications from his Epilepsy, and some is just because he can’t tolerate it. We never force feed. But we always have food available for when he wants it, even if he only takes a bite or two.

    Your explanation makes a ton of sense and I thank you for being so transparent and honest. Pasta he does not care for, not even mac and cheese, only spaghetti. Different texture. Keep being yourself and keep sharing how it feels and what it is like because it really helps me understand! Thank you so much!

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  13. Thank you for helping this mum with a sensory food kid understand better. My son tries so hard but the fear I see when he is trying new foods is heartbreaking. I understand so much better now.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for sharing this! You just described me! Now my son also has the very same thing. I have lived with the comments my whole life. Now I see my son having to explain his eating. It is funny how people care so much about our choice in foods.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Th a I-you for sharr. My grandson is a we sort eater. After reading your article I was able to make sense of what he goes through. His doctor says as long as he is healthy and maintaining weight there is no reason to worry. I have always beent tiny and actually eating 6 times a day makes more sense. As a child I was forced to sit at the table until my food was gone or eat it cold the next morning. I can’t begin to tell you the damage that did to my eating habits as a teen. I still at the age of 77 get snide remarks about how much I eat and how skinny am. I have gained weight recently
    and my doctor is fine with what I weigh. I order small meals when I can. So I can empathize with you. People need to keep their opinions to themselves. Family is worse. In wasteWater upset me because once again someone had to say something negative about my grandson, in my home, and while eating MY food!

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  16. Wow. Perfect. This is me! I’m a 43 woman who will still only eat what I eat. My husband says “she’s not fussy She only eats 6 things – chicken breast, chips, steak, rice, bacon and my own recipe for spaghetti bol”. I’m not quite that bad but you are right, I can’t even imagine eating foods without wretching, sometimes that’s even for food I like but the wrong time of the day/month. I knew I was a freak but I don’t care and I’ve been like this forever but could autism really come into it? Surely I’d have known by now?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Sinead,

      There are actually quite a few people who aren’t diagnosed with autism until later in life, so I suppose there is some potential you might be autistic.

      You could also just have some form of Sensory Processing Disorder and not be autistic, which would also explain your sensory aversions.

      You can email me if you have questions. See my “Contact” page.

      -Quincy

      Like

  17. I am so thankful for you writing this. My 11 year old son is Aspergers and has this exact thing! I tell people he has a phobia of food as that usually puts people in their place if they start asking why he won’t eat like a “normal kid” My son takes the same lunch everyday to school (vanilla custard, vanilla yogurt, salt and vinegar chips) and I make him my savory mince for dinner. Anything other then that is a no-go.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Yes my autistic 6 year old is just like you. And he likes bread! And strawberries are inconsistent so he sticks to just pink lady apples. I absolutely understand it. As his mum I am judged so often and hear all the comments( even from doctors) ‘eventually he’ll eat it’. No he would rather starve. He doesn’t eat meat at all. Like you he and me will find a few new food to add to his list as he gets older and that’s ok. Thanks for sharing. I find it extremely hard trying to get people to understand his adversion to foods because he is a sensory eater. Another parent yes to salt and vinegar chips!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Finally. Someone writing about sensory aversion. I have a problem with weird mixed textures like pineapples and strawberries. Which seem to be the two most divisive foods on the planet. So, no, I will not ‘grow into liking’ pineapples and strawberries. It’s not ‘picky eating,’ considering I’ll eat most other fruits (to continue with the example), just not stuff that’s textures like pineapples or strawberries. Pineapples are too firm and fibrous AND slimy, and the bumpy outsides of a strawberry don’t mix well with the firm core and soft pulp and it causes me to physically have a hard time swallowing it. Physically. That’s texture aversion. Nothing to do with taste.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Thank you this was s very interesting read and an eye opener as this could explain my 8 year old son reason to sensory eating here I was thinking he was a picky eater by I think not and plus his foods are not allowed to touch one another as if it does he has a melt down and want eat we have starved him to make him eat but he will keep us awake all night and I mean all night until he gets the food he wants that he can eat
    So thank you for you insight very much appreciated

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you for this. I have a 9 year old daughter that has worked with a food therapist for years. Progress was/is slow but we have made progress!! She finally started eating cheese pizza about a year ago!! And I pack the same lunch for her everyday!! I do get so frustrated by comments about her eating, and when they they have a picky eater, I tell them I wish she was a picky eater!! Now I will say she’s a sensory eater!!! Thanks for that!! Kylee is an awesome girl and we don’t care if she eats the same foods as long as she’s eating!! We also try to offer new things, but if she tries it great if not we don’t stress!! Thanks again for the story it makes me feel better getting a little bit better understanding of what she is dealing with!
    Kelly

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you for this article. It’s also lovely to see replies from others with the same response to food. My sensory eater also said that if he eats something that he doesn’t like the taste of he can taste it for the rest of the day no matter what else he eats. The way that he tries new foods (even now that he’s older – he’s 14) is next to the bin so he can spit it out if he needs to. If he thinks he would like to try something or if I have something that I think he may like then the routine goes sniff first, then lick to test if it’s still acceptable before we have the full mouth tryout. I have always pointed out to anyone accusing him of being a “picky eater” that his food refusal also encompasses cakes, chocolate, desserts etc and not just food that is commonly refused to try to move on to the next course. Until he was 8 we had to take the burger out of his cheeseburger so he just had a warm cheese roll. He can eat the burger now so progress can be made however slow it may seem. He doesn’t drink anything fizzy – he prefers water, tea or coffee. Ever since he was little I have told him never to let anyone try to force feed him.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Quincy, thank you so much for this! It helped me put my finger on some frustrations around food in my own family. I self identify as “somewhere on the spectrum” and 2 out of my 3 children are diagnosed autistic, with the youngest having SPD and falling somewhere in the borderline just short of a clear ASD diagnosis. My husband is also likely on the spectrum. Our sensory eating is not extreme, but in the last couple of years I’ve become SO frustrated with my middle son, who used to eat anything and everything. Truly, if it was placed in front of him, as a toddler he would eat it. But then his sensory system seemed to “wake up” and all of a sudden all these foods were WRONG and it is never predictable which foods are ok at any given time. The only constant is that none of my kids can tolerate the texture of mashed potatoes, or really potatoes in general. This has been a massive disappointment to me because mashed potatoes are one of my top favorite foods! This has meant I rarely get to eat one of my favorite foods because no one else in my family will eat it if I make it. There are a few foods that are like this. Then there is quinoa. I don’t know how many times we’ve butted heads over this. Because of food allergies and Celiac disease, it is the only “grain” (it’s actually more properly a seed) our whole family can safely eat. I actually don’t personally love it, but I also don’t love making 3 different meals at once. I realized I’ve been feeling resentful like he is somehow intentionally making my life extra difficult by not eating this essential family staple when we’re already so limited by actual allergies. Surely there’s a solution here but a standoff isn’t it.
    My other thought is about the flip side of sensory eating: do you ever *crave* certain textures and tastes because of the sensory experience or go through phases of intensively eating one or a few things? I actually find that I (and my kids) experience this even more than the aversions. Often I have to work to stop myself from eating too much of something because I’m eating it just for the texture or taste and not because I’m hungry, or try to find something that satisfies the same sensory need but without as many calories. It’s like a stim, almost.

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