Commenced in January 2007
Frequency: Monthly
Edition: International
Paper Count: 32451
Food for Thought: Preparing the Brain to Eat New Foods through “Messy” Play

Authors: L. Bernabeo, T. Loftus


Many children often experience phases of picky eating, food aversions and/or avoidance. For families with children who have special needs, these experiences are often exacerbated, which can lead to feelings that negatively impact a caregiver’s relationship with their child. Within the scope of speech language pathology practice, knowledge of both emotional and feeding development is key. This paper will explore the significance of “messy play” within typical feeding development, and the challenges that may arise if a child does not have the opportunity to engage in this type of exploratory play. This paper will consider several contributing factors that can result in a “picky eater.” Further, research has shown that individuals with special needs, including autism, possess a neurological makeup that differs from that of a typical individual. Because autism is a disorder of relating and communicating due to differences in the limbic system, an individual with special needs may respond to a typical feeding experience as if it is a traumatic event. As a result, broadening one’s dietary repertoire may seem to be an insurmountable challenge. This paper suggests that introducing new foods through exploratory play can help broaden and strengthen diets, as well as improve the feeding experience, of individuals with autism. The DIRFloortimeⓇ methodology stresses the importance of following a child's lead. Within this developmental model, there is a special focus on a person’s individual differences, including the unique way they process the world around them, as well as the significance of therapy occurring within the context of a strong and motivating relationship. Using this child-centered approach, we can support our children in expanding their diets, while simultaneously building upon their cognitive and creative development through playful and respectful interactions that include exposure to foods that differ in color, texture, and smell. Further, this paper explores the importance of exploration, self-feeding and messy play on brain development, both in the context of typically developing individuals and those with disordered development.

Keywords: Autism, development, exploration, feeding, play.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI):

Procedia APA BibTeX Chicago EndNote Harvard JSON MLA RIS XML ISO 690 PDF Downloads 1356


[1] Reva, J. (2018). Key Elements of Picky Eaters: Feeding Assessment.
[2] Greenspan, S. I., & Lewis, N. B. (2000). Building healthy minds: The six experiences that create intelligence and emotional growth in babies and young children. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub.
[3] Greenspan, S. I., & Wieder, S. (2009). Engaging autism: Using the floortime approach to help children relate, communicate, and think. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press
[4] Allen, N. (2016). Gut Instinct: Making the Connection between the Intestines & the Brain.
[5] Duffy, B. (2007). All about...Messy Play. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from
[6] Delaware, J. McNamee, M. and (2019). Infant Feeding: The Baby-led Way.
[7] Delaware, & McNamee. (n.d.). Get the expert feeding help you need for your family on your own time. Retrieved February, 2019, from
[8] S. Baron-Cohen, H.A. Ring, E.T. Bullmore, S. Wheelwright, C. Ashwin and S.C.R. Williams (2000). The amygdala theory of autism. Retrieved May 2019 from
[9] Andrés Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: W.W. Norton.
[10] Rosenberg, S. (2016). Accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve: Self-help exercises for anxiety, depression, trauma, and autism. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
[11] Zhang, Q., Li, H. & Guo, F. Front. Biol. (2011) Amygdala, an important regulator for food intake. Front. Biol. 6: 82.
[12] Edwards, Scott. P (2008). Delicious! Disgusting! So Say Our Brains. Retrieved May 2019 from
[13] Molero-Chamizo et al. Effects of lesions in different nuclei of the amygdala on conditioned taste aversion, Experimental Brain Research (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s00221-017-5078-1
[14] Admin. “How Does Food Texture Affect Taste? DuPont USA.” DuPont, 4 Aug. 2016,
[15] Personal interview (2019, May 5).
[16] Rapley, G., & Murkett, T. (2011). Baby-led weaning: The essential guide to introducing solid foods and helping your baby to grow up a happy and confident eater. New York: Experiment.
[17] Beckerleg, T. (2009). Fun with messy play: Ideas and activities for children with special needs. London: Jessica Kingsley.