When you’re neurodivergent, you interact with the world differently than most people expect you to. For some individuals, the sensory experience can be intense and unpredictable, making certain tasks and sensations a constant challenge. Sensory aversion can affect some of the most essential everyday tasks–particularly eating.
If you’re neurodivergent, or the parent of a neurodivergent child, food can make an impact on daily life in a number of ways, whether that’s gastrointestinal (GI) health, sensory aversion, or stigmas surrounding autism as a whole. Neurodivergence may drastically impact your relationship with food, but that doesn’t mean food needs to control your life.
In this article, we’re discussing neurodivergent eating: digestion, disorders, and diet. Throughout, we will discuss the possible links between GI health and the neurodivergent mind, while exploring different strategies for developing a healthy relationship with food.
Sensory Sensitivity and Food Aversion
In many cases, difficulty eating with neurodivergence can stem from sensory sensitivity.
Despite being its own condition, sensory sensitivity is often associated with autism–a testament to how closely intertwined the two conditions can be. Sensory sensitivity associated with autism may involve an increased awareness in the six senses. Temperature is also a sensory factor, as well as body awareness, which can affect the way we experience muscle contraction in the jaw. Sight also comes into play, which involves the way food looks.
Trouble eating may come from these external responses, but it may also stem from an internal response. This can include the sensation of the stomach, how full one might be, or how the bowels are feeling or moving. Some may not eat due to a constant feeling of fullness, in which you might not feel the need to eat. In some cases, however, the direct opposite can happen, where you might experience constant sensations of hunger. Some individuals may embrace this sense of hunger, recognizing it as a consistent kind of feeling in a world filled with intense and unpredictable sensory experiences.
Sensory sensitivity can have an influence on one’s food choices early in life, and can pass into adulthood; parents of autistic children may observe particular eating habits, such as a specific range of food preferences or ritualistic behaviors. This is very common with people who have sensory sensitivities and neurodivergence.
Safe Foods and Autism
Autistic people and other Neurodivergent people with sensory sensitivities may define safe foods for themselves. A safe food is a food that is reliable in sensory experience and can be used as a regulation tool. This food item is usually consistent each time it is consumed; for example, a type of apple that has the same crispness and flavor every time, or a brand of potato chips that delivers a reliable experience no matter where it is purchased.
When you have sensory sensitivities, a reliable and consistent sensory experience is key when eating - both in getting the food down and keeping it down. A consistent sensory experience means that all the factors are consistent each time, such as taste, texture, smell, and look.
It is important for many sensory sensitive eaters to have safe foods at the ready in case of dysregulation, which can easily impact the stomach and the signals it sends to the brain.
Dysregulation contributes to many barriers to eating such as:
- Disrupting hunger signals/interfering with interoception
- Losing appetite
- Digestion issues
Importantly, a safe food may not be something that the person particularly likes, but it is something they know they can consume and digest. For an example of how an Autistic endurance athlete explains safe foods in the context of dealing with foods offered on the race course, click here.
Safe foods can be entire meals or single items and vary for each individual. You will find some people lean towards packaged items or take out foods, because they offer a brand of consistency. This is a type of consistency that makes food more accessible to those with sensory sensitivities when away from home.
Compounding sensory sensitivities in eating, gut problems are also highly prevalent with neurodivergence.
Gut Troubles in Neurodivergent People
Gut health issues are highly prevalent among those with a neurodivergent condition such as autism. According to one study, GI symptoms are also more likely to occur in toddlers with ASD than children with typical development or other developmental delays, suggesting that there may be something unique in gut development and/or function that occurs in ASD relative to not only neurotypical children, but also special needs populations. Consequently, autistic children are also more likely to receive medication for gastrointestinal problems, which can be accompanied by a myriad of side effects.
It has also been suggested that a sensory component is at play: individuals with autism are often highly susceptible to sensory input such as sight, smell, sound, touch, or taste. This shows how neurodivergence can affect one’s relationship with food beyond digestion; all too often, it directly affects mental health, which can manifest into serious issues such as eating disorders.
Are Neurodivergent People More Likely to Have an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are highly prevalent in the United States, particularly for young girls and women. But according to growing research, girls with a neurodivergent condition are more likely to develop an eating disorder than those considered neurotypical.
According to one study, girls with ADHD were found to be 3.6 times more likely to have an eating disorder. In the same study, it was found that girls with eating disorders have significantly higher rates of anxiety disorder, depression, and disruptive behavior compared to those with ADHD and no eating disorder. Results from a clinical study also indicated similarities in scores on both self-reported and clinical interview metrics in anorexia nervosa and autism, suggesting a link between the two conditions.
Eating disorders are a complicated condition with deep-rooted causes. More than this, the exact reason why one develops an eating disorder is highly personal, and will differ from the reasons why another individual is dealing with one. Though in the case of autism, some links are possible.
Similar to many anorexic individuals, autistic people with an eating disorder tend to experience the need for rituals around eating, as well as experiencing extreme food sensitivity.
Based on observations from these studies, it’s also been suggested that food sensitivities in autism stem from an underlying gastrointestinal problem. Further, it’s additionally been observed that these rituals and habits derive from anxiety and gastrointestinal problems rather than fatphobia or body dysmorphia.
Neurodivergence is also known to frequently coincide with ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder). Similar to anorexia, ARFID involves an intense restriction on the type and amount of foods you eat. The difference between ARFID and anorexia, however, is that people with ARFID don’t restrict foods for extreme weight loss. In fact, the exact reason why someone with ARFID has such tendencies can be nuanced; in some cases, it may be out of a need for control, while others might have had a bad experience with food that involved vomiting or choking.
While the exact cause of ARFID remains unknown, it’s been shown that those with ADHD and autism are more likely to experience it. This may have to do with the fact that neurodivergent individuals aren’t just susceptible to sensory input, but also to overwhelm from compounding inputs and sensitivity to what they’re intaking. For further information about ARFID, see this article from the Center for Discovery.
Do Neurodivergent People Need a Special Diet?
Over the past several decades, there have been many misconceptions surrounding neurodivergence. Perhaps the most damaging one is the idea that neurodivergent conditions like autism can be “cured.” Through this notion, fad diets have gained headway as a method for “treating” autism, often involving the restriction of certain carbohydrates, food colorings, and forms of dairy.
While there has been some anecdotal evidence for benefits of certain diets, the research is highly limited. However, it’s hard to overlook the significance that can go into food when you’re dealing with conditions like sensory sensitivity and food aversion.
For instance, intuitive eating is an approach to eating that’s often recommended to those looking to improve their relationship with food. However, this ideology isn’t always accessible to neurodivergent people for a number of reasons. For starters, individuals may struggle with interoception, which is the perception of sensations in the body, like hunger. While it is not fully understood why, interoception can become difficult or inhibited in some autistic individuals, making it hard for them to perceive when they are hungry.
While diet should not be viewed as a form of “treatment” for neurodivergent individuals, it should still be in alignment with what’s comfortable while satisfying nutritional needs. Of course, this can be easier said than done, and can require some trial and error, but here are some tips for providing mealtime support, whether it’s for yourself or a loved one:
Talk to Your Doctor
Before anything else, it is imperative that you discuss with your doctor about your or your child’s troubled eating, as it may be related to an underlying digestive problem. They may even offer solutions that can ease both digestion and your concerns.
Have Some Pre-Meal Relaxation
If mealtime has evolved into a time of difficulty and conflict for you or your neurodivergent child, reducing stress before a meal may make it easier to sit through. This may involve reading a favorite book, solving puzzles, or simply sitting in a calming environment.
Cook in Large Batches When Possible
When you’re in the mood to cook a meal, a helpful trick is to cook in large batches when possible. It can be tiring to cook several different meals throughout the week, so making one in bulk can help cut down on time and energy spent on both cooking and deciding what to eat. Plus, when you know it’s a safe meal, you’ll have the option to eat it again with confidence–a win if you’re working with food restrictions or aversions.
Keep Snacks Within Reach
Try keeping a supply of snacks you’re comfortable eating in high-traffic areas of your home, such as in your living room by the couch, on your bedroom nightstand, or at your desk. This can help individuals with executive dysfunction, which can inhibit the desire to get up and move around. And for those with sensory issues, keeping a quick comfort snack on yourself that will help keep you full can come in handy, especially for times in which you’re unable to get a sensory-friendly meal outside your home.
Slowly Incorporate New Foods
If you or your neurodivergent child only eats a few types of food, and you’re seeking to gently expand upon your/their diet, a slow introduction to new foods can be highly beneficial, sometimes referred to as “food chaining.” Adding the new food to a preferred food is a great approach to this, as the goal is to gradually gain acceptance of the new food.
Do Not Force Food
Whether you have a neurotypical or neurodivergent child, it is imperative that you do not force them to eat, as forcing food can make a child feel helpless and without agency. Further, it’s been shown that children will not only dislike the food even more, but will experience the memory of being forced to eat as a traumatic encounter that they carry into adulthood. When coaxing children to eat, always be patient and provide different options.
When you have a neurodivergent mind, you operate on a different wavelength. This can be a beautiful thing–your thoughts, perspectives, and impact are truly unique, and this includes your sensory experience. When that experience becomes overwhelming and intense, we want you to know that you’re not being “picky,” or “difficult,” and most importantly, you’re not alone.
It may take some time, and some trial and error may be needed, but it is absolutely possible to live a life in which you feel secure and healthy in your eating habits.