How Nutrition Changes with Developmental Disabilities

Ask any parent what is difficult about raising their young children, and mealtime dilemmas certainly top the list. Some children demand a steady diet of chicken nuggets, while others exist only on string cheese or plain pasta. From picky eaters to children who won’t sit still long enough to eat, parents face a daily struggle to make sure their children get the proper nutrition to fuel their bodies. But for parents of children with developmental disabilities, the challenge is even greater. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics asserts that over 11 percent of children ages 0-17 have special health care needs. These children struggle to maintain their physical health so that they can continue to reach growth milestones. 

Without parents and guardians who can influence proper eating habits, children with special health care needs face a lifetime of jeopardy. According to a study at the University of Connecticut, children with developmental disabilities risk malnutrition, both overnourishment and under-nourishment. Nutrition problems can affect the way people interact in the community, their ability to manage self-care, and their health and length of life. Having a healthy diet and receiving the proper amount of vitamins and minerals is an important step in helping each child reach their own highest level of autonomy and success.

Nutritional Challenges Facing Children with Special Needs

There are three major issues regarding nutrition for children with special needs. The first is muscle control. Many children lack the basic abilities required to eat. Children need to be able to sit up, intake, and manage the food in their mouths, chew and swallow the food, and have a functioning digestive tract. The interplay between tongue, jaw, lips, and mouth muscles requires high-level skills which some children with developmental problems lack.

The second area of concern is a child’s sensory processes.  Many children with developmental problems, such as those on the autism spectrum, have difficulties with certain textures, smells, and other sensory encounters. Often children will avoid foods with strong flavors. Also, foods that have a slippy or soft texture, such as vegetables,  can cause a child to shy away. 

Finally, mealtime rituals and communication are more challenging for children with developmental complications. For instance, research at Emory University shows that children with ASD have a five times greater chance of meal difficulties. The problems include outbursts, intense habits, and rituals that must be followed, as well as heightened preferences for certain foods. And when families struggle with the mere process of mealtime, they also struggle with ensuring adequate nourishment for their children. 

What Guardians Can Do 

Because muscle control, sensory processes, and communication can be more challenging for children with developmental problems, parents and caregivers need to be more vigilant in helping children get the nutrition they need. Parents need to stop the pattern of poor nutrition before it can cause lasting damage. Often children with difficulty eating lack calcium and protein. Since calcium is essential for building strong bones and protein fosters growth, mental acuity, and overall health, ensuring calcium and protein intake are imperative. This can seem like an insurmountable task, however, when a child cannot sit up or communicate their needs or be willing to try a fruit or vegetable that would supply them with this nutritional support. You can find more information on My Spectrum Heroes.

Due to the nutritional losses of children with development complications, parents need to set up a plan to counteract these deficiencies and keep their children on a solid path to wellness. They can do this by planning ahead for fussy eaters, considering a special diet, and setting up a mealtime routine.

Understanding the fussy factor ahead of time will more likely lead to success. Knowledge is power! Especially when children have sensory issues, they are not going to be thrilled about trying new foods. Grocery shopping with your child and allowing him/her to pick out new foods will involve and interest him/her in the process. You could also research foods together on the internet to find ideas that are appealing. This spark of interest can light their fire to try new foods. 

Secondly, consider a special diet.  Many parents of autistic children say that gluten-free and casein-free diets are helping symptoms, although scientific research is still ongoing.  But professionals worry that eliminating milk and wheat products also stamps out valuable nutrients for children. Often, supplements are the key to bridging the gap and offer children the nutrients they need. Supplements are also beneficial because the powder and liquid forms circumvent the problem of textures that turn children off to other foods. The liquid and powders can be eaten in smoothies or other foods the children enjoy, and they make it easier to ingest. The nutritional support all children need is an important factor in brain development. For children who cannot get this support traditionally, supplements are a great answer. 


Whether a child has developmental delays or not, setting up a routine for meals is important. For children on the spectrum, sitting in the same seat every day, dimming the lights to avoid distractions, and offering foods in the same order will improve the experience for the entire family. 

By getting children involved in food selection, considering alternative diets by eliminating triggers and adding supplements, and utilizing routine, parents can make mealtime more enjoyable and more likely to offer the health benefits their children need.