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“Food is Yummy! Get in My Tummy!” Managing Food-Seeking Behaviors

Most of the people reading this can agree with the title. Food is yummy, so we love putting it in our tummy! This can be an issue when food becomes an obsession, for obvious reasons (i.e., health concerns) and some that may not be so apparent (e.g., problem behaviors resulting from being denied access to food). Feeding issues are commonly discussed in the world of autism, but excessive food-seeking doesn’t get as much press. Still, it remains a big concern in our community. Because food is such a potent reinforcer and available almost anywhere these days, it’s important to find ways to manage food-seeking behaviors that can benefit everyone.

Stick to a schedule

This is pretty obvious, right? Scheduling meals each day will not only help caregivers manage food intake but will also keep the person informed about when to expect their next meal. Ideally, if the person knows when to expect their next meal, food-seeking behaviors will decrease. Having a schedule that the person may access visually may be helpful in keeping them informed throughout the day. Avoid snacking outside of scheduled mealtimes to decrease confusion or inadvertent reinforcement of the undesirable behavior, and to increase the effectiveness of the schedule.

Kitchens are for mealtimes

Unless it’s time to eat, there is no reason to hang out in areas designated for mealtimes. If mealtime-related goals are included in the person’s schedule, they should be run during designated mealtimes only. Avoid areas where food is easily accessible and move food so that it’s not easily accessible, for example into higher cabinets.

Go for healthier options

A lot of times, food-seeking behaviors may result from actually being hungry. It is important to consider that many things, such as medication, may increase a person’s appetite. Have healthy, low-calorie food options available that the person can fill up on at mealtimes. If the person feels full, food-seeking behaviors may decrease. Teaching the person to identify healthy food options can also give them ownership of their menu.

Encourage appropriate mealtime behaviors

Encourage the person to complete appropriate food-related behaviors before, during, and after meals and snacks. These behaviors include, but are not limited to:

  • Transitioning to the meal or snack area
  • Washing and drying their hands
  • Eating neatly using appropriate utensils
  • Indicating that they are finished using an appropriate communicative means
  • Assisting in clearing their place

Additionally, responding appropriately to direction or redirection when scanning for food is an important positive food-related behavior. These behaviors should be recognized and praised when they occur spontaneously, otherwise they should be cued and then followed by recognition and praise.

Find other things they prefer

As previously stated, food is a very motivating reinforcer. But in many cases, other things that are enjoyable to the person can be used as a reward for good behavior. The first step to increasing replacement behaviors, such as engaging in appropriate mealtime behaviors, is to regularly assess the person’s preferences for items and activities. It is important to note that preferences change frequently depending on a number of factors, including frequency of access. When the person has access to an item or activity, watch carefully to see whether they are enjoying it. If not, try other items. If there is a particular food that the person really likes that you still want to use for a reinforcer, incorporate it during scheduled mealtimes. For example, if the person has a successful morning, they may have a choice of preferred chips at lunchtime. Use of a visual aid, such as a sticker chart, to represent progress toward this goal may be useful as well.

Reward them for doing well

Incorporating a reward for engaging in appropriate mealtime behaviors, including refraining from food-seeking behaviors, could be helpful in increasing the desired behaviors. For example, provide an opportunity to access a preferred activity, such as a game, at the end of an identified period for engaging in appropriate mealtime behaviors. This may happen multiple times each day to start and gradually fade as the person successfully refrains from food-seeking behavior for longer periods each day.

Get moving!

Physical activity is so important for everyone. Many sources recommend approximately 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Physical activity is especially important for those of us who really enjoy food (like me) to burn those extra calories. Finding physical activities that the person enjoys will help with increasing motivation to exercise daily. There are a variety of new and fun ways of attaining and maintaining good physical health, such as Zumba. People may also get their daily exercise through sports or other outdoor activities such as walking or hiking. Using a first-then schedule (e.g., first we’ll exercise, then we’ll have iPad time) may also help to increase compliance and motivation.

Food-seeking behaviors can be tricky to deal with, especially when they lead to other problem behaviors such as aggression. However, with the right schedule and strategies in place, these behaviors can be managed in a way that keeps everyone happy and healthy.

ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs). We provide individualized consultation and comprehensive, intensive intervention using evidenced-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential, and other community-based contexts. Our Lifelong Interventions program (comprehensive ABA) is offered in Asheville, Wilmington, Charlotte, and the Triangle. We also deliver workshops to professionals and families on a wide range of topics, including but not limited to strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, supporting students with ASD in school settings, and enhancing social understanding in individuals with autism.

To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or training@autismsociety-nc.org.

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