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Six Reasons Children with Autism Have Eating Issues

Amy Long Carrera, MS, RD, CNSC, CWCMS
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Shield HealthCare
12/14/15  2:09 PM PST

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) describes a group of developmental disabilities that can cause difficulty with social skills, language and behavior.

Fast Facts

  • About 1 in 68 children has been diagnosed with ASD.
  • ASD is almost 5 times more common in boys than in girls.
  • Almost half of children with ASD have average to above average intellectual ability.

 

ASD and Nutrition

Up to 80% of children with ASD are selective eaters. Your child may eat fewer fruits and vegetables and have less variety in his diet, putting him at risk for developing nutrient deficiencies. Long-term poor nutritional habits may increase the risk of developing chronic disease in adulthood, including hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

Many factors influence the way your child with ASD experiences food. Knowing what to expect can help reduce frustration.

At least six common features of ASD are related to eating behavior:

1 Social Interaction

Children learn some feeding behaviors from watching others eat. This may not be a motivator for your child with ASD. He may not understand the cues that come from watching his parents or other children enjoy food or he may not be interested in paying attention to what others are doing.

2 Need for Consistency

Your child may prefer to eat the same foods in the same way over and over again, refusing different versions or brands. He may lack the flexibility to accept the difference between packaged and homemade macaroni and cheese, for example. Any variation in a food or the environment in which your child eats may be seen as a completely unfamiliar and scary experience.

3 Language and Communication

Explaining the similarities between packaged and homemade macaroni and cheese to your child with ASD may not be effective. He may not interpret or understand your intended meaning due to language problems. A Speech and Language Pathologist can help your child develop his language skills.

4 Motor Control

Eating is a complex chain of activities. In order to take a bite of yogurt, for example, your child has to decide to pick up a spoon, dip it into the yogurt, lift it to his mouth, put it in his mouth and move it around, then swallow it. If there are any chunks of fruit or varying textures, he has to recognize them and decide to chew them if needed. He also has to remember to breathe and sit in his chair. Children with ASD may have trouble with the connection between thinking about performing these actions and actually carrying them out.

5 Sensory Perception

A child with ASD may have trouble processing sensations, such as touch, smell and taste. He may also have difficulty processing feelings of hunger, thirst and fullness. If he is oversensitive, he may prefer foods that are bland and soft or he may even avoid eating. On the other hand, a hyposensitive child may prefer spicy and crunchy foods. Some children may exhibit both of these preferences depending on the situation. For example, he may crave bold flavors but may be oversensitive to sound or smells while eating.

6 Gastrointestinal Disorders

Abdominal pain and discomfort associated with autism affects up to 72% of children with ASD. The most common issue is constipation. A diet low in fiber and high in processed foods due to food preferences may contribute to the problem. In addition, your child may not understand or ignore the urge to defecate. He may not be able to effectively communicate the source of his discomfort and may act it out with anger, irritability, social withdrawal or disruptive behavior.  Regular bathroom routines are very important for your child. Ask your child’s doctor if stool softeners, lubricants or other medications are necessary.

 

Your Child’s Multidisciplinary Team

You, your family and your child’s caregivers are critical to the success of the team. A number of experts can help you and your child cope effectively with ASD.

  • Physicians specializing in pediatrics, neuropsychology, psychiatry and other fields manage your child’s medical health.
  • A speech and language pathologist works to improve social communication and modify behaviors to develop relationships and function effectively in society.
  • An occupational therapist helps your child develop sensory perception to perform everyday activities at school and at home.
  • A registered dietitian nutritionist recommends specific dietary changes to resolve symptoms or enhance a selective diet to fill gaps in nutrition.

 

Reference

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: ASD Data and Statistics
  • Novak P. Autism and Nutrition. Building Blocks. 2014;37(3): 7-12.

Resources

Click here for helpful links and resources for families of children with special needs.

 

 

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