How to Encourage Healthy Eating Habits in Adults with Special Needs

Adults with special needs may need support with a range of everyday tasks, including how to eat regular, nutritionally balanced meals. Life skill activities for adults with disability should include meal planning and preparation, .

Why do some adults with special needs struggle with healthy eating?

Adults with autism and/or developmental disabilities may have sensory issues around taste, texture and smell that make common foods overwhelming or underwhelming. Sensory issues can also affect reactions to the mealtime environment, such as a noisy cafeteria or uncomfortable chair. Some people may have specific preferences about the color and position of food on the plate, or whether different foods can touch. Communal or solitary mealtimes can make a difference to those who struggle with social situations. It is also important not to dismiss possible physical issues, such as constipation.

How can life skill activities for adults with disabilities encourage healthy eating?

Just as the causes of food-related problems are varied, so are potential solutions. It is important to identify the specific cause of dietary issues so that appropriate responses can be found. In all cases, however, simply teaching about the importance of healthy eating is essential.

Explanations as to why healthy eating is important and the different food groups could be given in visual, audio or textual format to suit varied learning styles. Try not to overemphasize specific foods as healthy or unhealthy, as this can lead to restrictive eating around one or two foods. Try instead to focus on the idea of balance. Keep communication calm, clear and consistent. Remember to be specific: a red apple and a green apple may not be the same thing to someone with an intellectual disability.

Routines can also help. Adults with autism or developmental disabilities may want to sit in the same seat, using the same cutlery to eat the same type of meal at the same time every day. Take advantage of special interests, such as crockery themed around their personal interests. While breaking from the routine or introducing a new food, it should be done slowly and one step at a time, explaining the change and giving them time to explore the idea. Being involved in cooking and meal planning may help them feel more in control and build greater understanding.

Why are social skills for adults with disabilities relevant to healthy eating?

For some people, eating alone relieves the stress of mealtimes and makes it easier to concentrate on balanced nutrition. Others may be reassured by the presence of friends or family, and may benefit from seeing appropriate behaviormodeled. Cooking and eating are opportunities to build relationships in a communal setting, potentially improving social interaction, but this may require preparation to ensure the person is ready for likely topics of conversation and expected behavior.

Trying to establish and maintain healthy eating habits is challenging for everyone, but there are specific issues that can make it particularly difficult for those with special needs. Patience, practice, reliable routines and clear explanations in various forms can all help mitigate these problems to improve both diet and social skills.

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