Eating difficulties

Some disabled children have difficulties with eating and drinking. This might be because they cannot make the necessary physical movements to bite, chew and swallow food and drink.

Children may have experienced difficulties in the past. Sometimes these can continue, even when the original cause of the difficulty has been resolved.

Warning Always seek professional guidance

A speech and language therapist (SLT) can support you to ensure mealtimes are safe, enjoyable and provide enough nutrition.

Other professionals who may be able to help include:

  • occupational therapist (OT)
  • dietician
  • GP
  • health visitor
  • school nurse

It’s important not to force your child to eat and drink. This will make it even harder for them.

There are lots of factors that can affect how your child eats and drinks, including positioning, food and fluid textures and mealtime communication.

Swallowing difficulties (dysphagia)

A speech and language therapist can help if your child is having difficulties with their swallowing. They will ask you questions and watch your child eat and drink to consider what might affect mealtimes. The speech and language therapist will often make recommendations based on this.

Swallowing difficulties

Tube or non-oral feeding

Tube feeding may be necessary for some children who refuse to eat or who struggle to eat and drink enough to grow and stay healthy.

Some children find it difficult to swallow. Particles of food or drink may pass into the lungs as food moves through the throat and into the stomach. This can sometimes cause respiratory illness.

Tube feeding

Sensory issues around food

Some children on the autism spectrum may struggle with mealtimes. It may be challenging for them to eat a variety of food and drink.

Families will often adjust to their children’s restricted diet. Children may become upset and distressed if they cannot have foods they can accept. Children may be more comfortable with:

  • particular tastes and textures, such as crunchy, soft, dry, salty or sweet
  • particular colours, such as food or drink that is red, beige or white
  • keeping different foods separate from other foods, so they may eat crunchy cereal and drink milk, but refuse to eat when combined, or reject meals when different foods touch on the plate
  • certain food and drink brands because they are predictable in taste, smell, shape, texture and appearance

You can understand more about your child’s sensitivities by looking at the activities or sensory experiences that they might be avoiding or seeking.

You could develop some ways to help regulate your child’s sensory experience, making daily activities like mealtimes less stressful for them.

Ask your healthcare professional for advice.

Eating problems: further help

You can find further help for disabled children with eating problems or feeding issues, such as:

You can also try specialists in speech and language, nutrition and equipment.

Speech and language therapy

Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) is the professional body for speech and language therapists in the UK.

ASLTIP (The Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice) offers information about independent speech and language therapy.


British Dietetic Association is the association of UK dietitians.

PINNT (Patients on Intravenous and Naso Gastric Nutrition Therapy) promotes public awareness and research.

BAPEN (British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition) raises awareness of malnutrition.

Support and equipment

BLISS offers advice on premature babies and feeding options.

Living Made Easy offers practical, unbiased information and advice on disability equipment.

Fledglings sells toys and aids such as feeding cups, spoons and bibs to help parents, carers and childcare professionals.

Last reviewed by Scope on: 14/02/2024

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