Food Selectivity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Associated Factors and Impact on the Family Mealtime Experience

Michelle A. Suarez, Western Michigan University


This dissertation focuses on food selectivity in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Many children with autism struggle with food selectivity, but little is known about associated factors or implications for family meals. The dissertation comprises three studies that explore food selectivity in the autism population. The first, a survey study of 141 parents of children with autism, examines the relationship between parental report of physiological factors, age and sensory overresponsivity (SOR) to three levels of food selectivity (severe, moderate, and typical). Results of chi-square analysis showed no relationship between food selectivity and physiological factors. A significant difference in SOR scores, though no significant difference in age, was found for children in the three levels of food selectivity. Binary logistic regression showed that only SOR scores are predictive of membership in the severe food selectivity category (less than 10 foods). The second, also a survey study, is a longitudinal extension of the first. Fifty-two parents from study one responded to a second survey to examine changes in food selectivity over time and the stability of the relationship between food selectivity and SOR. The construct, restrictive and repetitive behavior, was examined as another possible associated factor. A Wilcoxon signed rank test showed that food selectivity did not change over an approximately two-year period. The significant association between SOR and food selectivity levels remained constant as well. Logistic binary regression showed that restrictive and repetitive behavior scores did not add to the prediction of membership in the severe food selectivity group. The third paper is a phenomenological qualitative interview study of four parents who participated in first two surveys. The experience of mealtime for mothers of children with ASD, food selectivity and SOR is explored. Themes that emerged from the data include dissatisfaction with family mealtime, strategies employed to attempt to increase mealtime success, and consequences of disrupted family meals. These studies provide a greater understanding of factors associated with food selectivity and the impact on family life. Results are discussed in the context of the literature. This research has the potential to inform practice for treatment of food selectivity.