The Nature of Family Meals: A New Vision of Families of Children with Autism


Families with children on the autism spectrum are often viewed in terms of their deficits rather than their strengths. Family meals are portrayed as sources of stress and struggle for parents and children. In this study, we take a resilience perspective to challenge underlying assumptions and get a more accurate picture of the nature of shared family meals. In-depth interviews were conducted and mealtimes were video recorded with 16 families for this thematic analysis. We identified four themes as being particularly salient to the mealtime experience: (1) schools and homework, (2) managing eating, (3) chores, and (4) intimate conversations. Our results elucidate the context of mealtimes as a site where parents struggle, yet negotiate, the challenges of everyday family life.

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We would like to acknowledge the families who participated in the study, The Autism Program affiliate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and our undergraduate research assistants (especially Elyse Marks, Caroline Stevens, and Rachel Wurtzel).

Author information

SC and AE conceived and designed the study together. SC coordinated the collection and the interpretation of the data and drafted the manuscript. AE participated in the collection and interpretation of the data and edited the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Correspondence to Sarah L. Curtiss.

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All Authors declared that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethnical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all adult individual participants included in the study. Assent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study who were under the age of 18.

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Curtiss, S.L., Ebata, A.T. The Nature of Family Meals: A New Vision of Families of Children with Autism. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 441–452 (2019).

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  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Mealtimes
  • Family processes
  • Picky eating
  • Resilience