Using Food to Motivate Autistic Children

Food as motivation in autism

The chaos of homes with disabled family members often tempts parents to consider using food to motivate autistic children. Although it may seem like a harmless practice, it's important to recognize that relying on food to reinforce certain behaviors can have drawbacks.

Food and Autism

Before turning to food as a motivation for autistic children, it's helpful to understand how eating issues and autism often go hand in hand. Despite a significant lack of authoritative statistics regarding food and autistic children, experts such as Geraldine Dawson, Autism Speaks' chief science officer, believe that parents raising kids with developmental disorders struggle with mealtime problems like the ones listed below on a daily basis.

  • Inability to recognize hunger
  • Fussiness about types of foods, manner of eating and time or place of eating
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing certain foods
  • Obsessive eating and drinking when not hungry or thirsty
  • Displays aversion to specific food textures
  • Eats items found on the floor or other locations
  • Displays phobias about certain foods (color, texture, smell, etc.)
  • Experiences biological intolerance to some foods
  • Displays non-medically-based aversive eating habits like choking, gagging or expulsion

These problems and others may eventually result in medical, psychological and emotional problems, leading experts to caution parents against using food as a tool to reinforce positive behaviors.

Learn about Using Food to Motivate Autistic Children

In spite of the warnings, many families desperate to motivate children with autism find themselves turning to food as an incentive. Parents and professionals may have tried other forms of motivation which yielded limited or no success. Offering favorite foods to control behaviors, reward achievements or coax children into performing certain tasks appears to work on the surface, but what are the possible costs of such a system? The following sections may help parents find answers to the food and eating questions which plague families of autistic children.


There are benefits to using food-based motivation in autism. It's up to individual families to determine if these advantages are important enough to tip the scales in favor of relying on food as a motivator.

  • Autistic may respond to food rewards favorably
  • During therapy, rewards of food may facilitate participation
  • The reinforcements can improve attention to tasks
  • In a frantic episode, food may elicit better cooperation
  • Timely rewards of nutritious foods can signal it's time for a specific event
  • Offering an autistic child a familiar food may keep her calmer in new situations

Treats are tangible, immediate and concrete. The child has the benefit of making clear connections between the desired behavior and the reward. In addition, the reward system used to motivate and reinforce desired behaviors are gradually faded from the program.


To avoid trouble down the road, it makes sense to become familiar with the possible short-term and long-term hazards associated with using food to motivate autistic children. By looking at the downside objectively, parents can decide if the motivation brought about by food is strong enough to outweigh the disadvantages.

  • Lack of overall nutrition
  • Failure to thrive when given only favorite foods
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Increased risk of obesity
  • Unreliable due to fussiness over food types and changes in favorite foods
  • Over time, children may begin to control household food choices

Creating Balance

Using food to reinforce desired behaviors can yield great results but it is an approach that requires balance. Parents and professionals working with autistic children can take the following steps to ensure that the strategy is effective without becoming detrimental.

  1. Reserve treats for specific activities. The treat should have strong associations with the target behavior.
  2. Consistently introduce healthy foods, some of which may be used as reinforcement and motivation.
  3. Keep regular mealtimes consistent. Create an eating routine that the child can rely on to help recognize expectations.
  4. Use treats as reinforcement for each correct response in the initial phases.
  5. Gradually reduce the treats, replacing them with verbal praise, desired activities and playtime.

If using food as a motivator still makes you uneasy, consider alternatives that may be effective as well.

Alternatives to Food as Motivators

If you're one of the many parents who have considered using food to motivate autistic children, take a look at some alternatives that might work for your family. Remember that each child with autism is different and it might take a little trial and error before you find healthy ways to inspire motivation in your kids.

  • Try praising your child in clear terms for a job well done.
  • Instead of promising food as motivation beforehand, reward your child with a nutritious treat or a fun activity after the task is completed. This decreases the chance of your child holding out for specific rewards.
  • Remain calm but firm about tasks and always follow through.
  • If food is all that works, switch to fruits and vegetables and reduce the amount offered each time.
  • Make sure you deliver your requests in clear and short terms.
  • Model the behavior or task that you require.

Bottom Line

When it's all said and done, health, happiness and successful living remains the goal of all parents for their kids. By maintaining a healthy diet for autistic children, health will come naturally but so will peaceful calm at meal and snack times.

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Using Food to Motivate Autistic Children