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How Basic principles of ABA can help with eating difficulties

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A large amount of children with developmental delays are reported to have difficulties with eating. However, these difficulties are hardly limited to children on the spectrum. According to a recent child and infant nutrition study, the vegetable of choice for most toddlers is a potato, specifically in the form of a French fry.

What's more discouraging is that 25% of children eat one serving or less of fruit. Thirty percent do not eat a single serving of vegetables per day (Feeding Infants and Toddler study, 2008). Inadequate nutrition can lead to many problems, such as difficulty with attention, poor development and higher rates of obesity. The CDC already reports that 17% percent of American children are classified as obese.

Eat everything on your plate

As behavior analysts, we are trained to use basic behavioral principles to support behavior change. The following are just a few examples of how basic principles can help with eating difficulties that ANY child might face, on or off the spectrum.


autism-eatingA reinforcer is defined as a stimulus that increases the probability that a behavior will occur again. We frequently think kids will just "behave" with no reinforcement. Think of what motivates the child and use it. It is important to keep in mind that reinforcers vary per person. One child might love to be praised, while another wants a sticker, while yet another is just reinforced by toys. When your child tries a vegetable without any prodding, remember to reinforce if you want to see that behavior again.

Discrete Trial Training

While I will not attempt to teach every component of Discrete Trail Training (DTT) in this blog, some aspects can be applied to teaching eating skills. One of the features of DTT is that you teach a skill for numerous trials and continue to teach it until the skill is mastered. Many times a parent will give a child a vegetable and if the child rejects it, they don't try that vegetable again. Some studies have suggested that a child may need to be exposed to a certain food over a dozen times before a child may try it, much less eat a whole serving.

Teaching replacement behaviors

In ABA, we strive not just to reduce problem behavior, but to teach replacement behaviors. Replacement behaviors are socially appropriate behaviors that help to decrease problem behaviors. This technique is used by many weight loss programs to teach how to eat in a healthy way. For example, in weight watchers, vegetables and fruits are mostly zero points, while most other snacks (chips, cookies etc) will take up your points. This is teaching people that, if you are hungry, reach for a fruit instead of Cheetos. It is in essence teaching the appropriate behavior. This can also be applied for children who drink juice all day. While there is nothing wrong with being thirsty, drinking water or a low-sugar drink would be an appropriate replacement.

The important thing to remember with all these strategies is to persevere. Eating issues do not develop overnight. They will not improve overnight. Using just a few of these strategies with consistency should help to improve your child's eating behavior.

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Guest Wednesday, 20 November 2019