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If a child is hungry enough they will eat anything. Hands up if you have a “Fussy Eater”

  • Written on Mar 10, 2022
Did someone say chicken nuggets? Yes! Every time for an Autism family.
Chicken nuggets and autism: we explore the connection

The Fussy Eater

“Your child is just being a fussy eater” I would be surprised if you have not heard this at least once as a parent of an autistic child. Parents of autistic children have a diverse range of issues to contend with. One of these is the food their children eat. Mealtimes can be difficult to navigate at the best of times. Having an autistic child can complicate it further. Various autistic traits, such as a desire for routine, preoccupations with certain foods, a dislike for surprises, and sensory aversions to taste, smell, colour and texture, can all be compounded in the experience of sitting down for a meal.

Parents of neurotypical children may not understand why parents of autisitic children ‘let’ them eat the same food over and over, for example, chicken nuggets. However, while it may not be obvious at first, there is a distinct connection between chicken nuggets and autism. Don’t be fooled by this seemingly simple food: here is why it is often the go-to for autistic children.

Consistency:

Chicken nuggets have a consistent taste. If taken from the same frozen packet and cooked in the oven, or bought from the same fast food store, your chicken nuggets will no doubt taste similar each time. While consistency of taste may seem like a small thing, routine is important to autistic children. It is not just being a “fussy eater” It helps them to feel safe and comfortable. Think about your favourite comfort food that you may long for if you have not had it for a while. That familiarity, paired with a food that you enjoy eating, is indeed comforting to both your mind and your stomach.

Did someone say chicken nuggets? Yes! Every time for an Autism family.
Unlike other foods, Chicken nuggets are consistent in taste and texture.

Bland and tasteless:

Whilst adults and some children may enjoy trying new and different dishes, autistic children tend to prefer food that is less stimulating. The taste of chicken nuggets is not overwhelming, a characteristic which is welcome to children with sensory issues. Research suggests that “many individuals with autism tend to have strong preferences for carbohydrates and processed foods, while rejecting fruits and vegetables. This may reflect an aversion to strong tastes and textures” (Kuschner, 2018).

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No surprises:

Alongside the regular taste, children know what they are getting with chicken nuggets. The colour, smell and texture is generally the same. The crispy  golden brown outside, the fleshy white meat inside. It is not a surprise. It is not new. It is not offensive. Notice how these elements connect to autistic traits? An autistic child ‘likes to follow routine and gets easily upset by change’ (“Autism signs and characteristics”, 2021). It is such a blessing that nuggets and chips are a staple on kids menus in most restaurants.

Safe sensory experience:

Chicken nuggets are a safe sensory experience for all the reasons we have listed. They have the same taste and texture every time – they are controllable. Nuggets are also a low risk experience because they don’t involve contending with various sized foods, colours, textures, as might happen with a dish like fried rice, for example.

Easy to eat:

Cutting a steak or pushing peas onto a fork presents frustrating challenges. Because ‘sitting still and behaving safely at mealtimes can also be a challenge’ (Garey, 2021) for autistic children, chicken nuggets are ideal. They are easy to pick up, eat with your hands and eat relatively quickly. Many autistic children also prefer to have their food on specific parts of their plate and not touching other food. Whilst dressing on salads, sauces or mashed potato can slide and mix with other food, chicken nuggets are usually served with chips. And, if they happen to touch, they do not compromise the taste of the other.

The humble chicken nugget might seem like simple and not overly nutritious food. But, for many parents, it provides an opportunity for their children to eat something that makes them feel safe, secure, and comfortable. In a world of overwhelming sensory experiences, especially at the end of a long day at school and work, it is easy to understand why this fairly innocuous food is a staple in the homes of autistic kids.

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