For kids with autism, food can be a fight

EMORY (US) — Children with autism spectrum disorders are five times more likely to have issues with eating, including tantrums at meals and extreme pickiness.

A comprehensive meta-analysis of all published, peer-reviewed research relating to feeding problems and autism shows a significantly lower intake of calcium and protein and a higher number of nutritional deficits overall among these children.


“The results of this study have broad implications for children with autism,” says William Sharp, assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

“It not only highlights the importance of assessing mealtime concerns as part of routine health care screenings, but also suggests the need for greater focus on diet and nutrition in the autism community.”

As reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, chronic feeding problems increase a child’s risk for poor medical and developmental outcomes, including malnutrition, slow growth, and poor academic achievement. Healthy eating also offers important opportunities for children to socialize during meals.

Emerging evidence suggests the feeding problems and dietary patterns associated with autism may place this population at risk for long-term medical complications, including poor bone growth, obesity, and other diet-related diseases like cardiovascular disease in adolescence or adulthood.

While parents of children with autism frequently express concern regarding how few foods make up their child’s diet, the analysis led by Sharp and colleagues represents the first attempt to combine outcomes from studies providing empirical evidence about levels of feeding problems and nutrient intake in children with autism compared with peers.

“Despite the risk of long-term medical issues, as well as frequent caregiver concern regarding the quality of their child’s diet, feeding problems are often overlooked in relation to other areas of clinical and research concern in the autism population,” Sharp says.

“Our findings have immediate and important implications for the work of practitioners serving children and families with autism, who in the absence of such information, may struggle to address parents’ concerns, or, worse, may fill the void with alternative treatments that may be ill-conceived or even harmful to children and families.”

One important example is the highly prevalent adoption of elimination diets as a form of treatment for autism, which, the data appear to suggest, could further exacerbate the nutritional risks for these children. With this in mind, Sharp and colleagues used this information to develop autism-specific recommendations to guide future clinical and research activities in this area.

These recommendations included screening for feeding concerns and nutritional deficits/excesses in addition to measurement of gross anthropometric parameters as part of routine medical evaluations for children with autism spectrum disorder. They also suggest healthcare providers review the potential consequences of pursuing an elimination diet with consideration of the child’s unique feeding and nutritional presentation.

“This study is the first of its kind to quantify the impact of feeding disorders in the autism population,” says Sharp. “We hope that our work helps guide clinical practice, as well as provides a roadmap for future research in this area.”

Source: Emory University