Youthrive Integrated Therapy Services

Youthrive Integrated Therapy Services

By Melanie Bouras, Paediatric Dietitian Youthrive


It’s important to understand the sensory system, and how it often impacts on the foods we choose to eat or refuse to eat.

The Sensory System involves;

  • Sight
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Sound

The food that we eat can trigger our 5 senses, this information is processed by the brain. Children with Autism can have many sensory sensitivities, which means they are either over or under sensitive to different sensations.

Food contains all 5 sensory properties; even sound depending on if a food is soft or crunchy when we take a bite. Therefore, children who have sensory sensitivities will find it difficult to eat a wide range of foods, because the sensations (stimuli) from the food is interpreted incorrectly by the part of the brain we call our ‘Policeman’.

If the Policeman deems the food sensation unsafe, he will activate the part of the brain we call our Danger Centre. When the Danger Centre is activated, it initiates our fight, slight or freeze response. This manifests as children who refuse to try food, will cry, become distressed and literally starve themselves, because the sensation(s) coming from that food is too overwhelming and scary for them.

Therefore, we need to respect the sensory system when initially teaching our children to eat new food, and begin with offering easier to eat food and meals that do not trigger the Danger Centre response. Another way to explain this, is to first begin with offering new foods that fall within our child’s safe sensory preferences. In this manner, your child learns to eat new food, which increases their skills and confidence in learning to eat new foods.

Recognising Sensory preferences before offering new safe foods

To help children learn to eat new food It’s important to start by offering new foods that are similar to the food your child is currently eating. This means recognising your child’s sensory preferences regarding food, and to offer a food that falls within their sensory preferences.

For example, if your child prefers single textures, dry, slightly crunchy foods such as; chicken nuggets and crackers, you can offer a different type of cracker or chicken nuggets. The new food offered should contain similar sensory properties (colour, shape, texture, smell, taste) to the foods currently in your child’s diet.

Another example is if your child is eating ritz crackers, you can offer sayo crackers. If your child is eating chicken nuggets you could offer chicken tenders or chicken fingers. Although, sayo and ritz crackers are considered the same food. “A cracker is a cracker, right?” No, for your child they are completely different foods. This concept is often referred to as ‘stretching’ food. Stretching foods teaches children that they can in fact eat a new food. It also helps children to be:

  • Less rigid and more flexible with food choice
  • It increases a child’s ability to try new foods, which can transition over to more challenging foods, such as family meal, mixed textures, vegetables and proteins.
  • It increases the variety and number of foods in a child’s diet, and it can prevent children from losing foods, as they have more food to choose from.

When we stretch foods, it is important to understand that the new food (chicken tender) should not replace the safe food (chicken nugget). It should be offered with the safe food. There should also be no pressure on your child to eat the new food. If your child is not ready to try the new food, this is quite normal. For many children it will take multiple exposures to a new food before they learn to eat a new food. If your child is not ready to take a bite, you can role model eating the new food in front of your child, and simple ask your child to describe the colour, shape, feel in their hands and the smell of the new food. If they feel ready they can take a lick of the new food. You can even compare the sensory properties of the new food with the already eaten or safe food. Once children begin to feel safe with the new food (I.e. the Policeman stops activating the Danger Centre response), children will feel ready to bring the new food to their mouth. But this will only happen when there is no one telling or bribing the child to ‘take a bite’, no one telling the child that the food is ‘yummy’ and ‘you will like it’, but instead creating a calm environment around food that is conducive to learning to eat new food. This means no pressure to try new foods, but parents understanding that their child is learning to eat new food. In time, after multiple exposures to a new food and no pressure to eat, children will expand their dietary intake. Remember at this stage, the new food is not steak and vegetables, the new foods are sensory safe foods.


If you’re struggling to grow your child’s confidence with trying new food, please speak to a health practitioner, including a dietitian who can offer a range of strategies.