Does Nutrition Affect Autism?

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Children with autism can present with unique nutritional challenges and nutritional deficiencies have been described in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). In addition to nutrition deficiencies, obesity has also been well-described to occur with ASDs. As a result, routine health maintenance with your family physician or Pediatrician is essential to ensuring appropriate nutritional support for a child with ASD. Routine doctor visits allow for consistent measurement of weight and height; following these measurements over time and a detailed dietary history may help identify children with ASD who are at risk for nutritional problems.

Nutritional Deficiencies and ASDs

Various nutritional deficiencies have been described in children with ASDs. These can result from a variety of reasons such as narrow food preferences or specific food/texture aversions. In a young child with ASD, food selectivity is common – including a limited food repertoire and food refusal. Children with a more restricted diet may be more likely to suffer from inadequate intake of nutrients and develop nutritional deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies that have been described in children with ASDs included protein, fiber, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin B12, iron, and calcium.

ASDs and Weight

In addition to nutritional deficiencies, children with ASDs are also at risk of excess body weight. Risk factors for overweight children with ASD may include impairments in motor function that limit physical activity, as well as social impairment or rigidity to a specific routine that limits involvement in structured physical activity with peers. While food selectivity may predispose to specific nutrient deficiencies in the diet, it may also place a child with ASD at risk for being overweight if high calorie foods are preferred.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Child with ASD May Have a Nutrition Problem

If you suspect that your child with an ASD may have a problem with nutrition, the first step you should take is discussing your concerns with your child’s physician. It may be necessary to fill out an extended dietary journal to help identify areas of potential deficiency or excess of nutrient intake. Based on your history or diet journal, your physician may be able to determine if specific vitamin or mineral supplementation is needed.

General Tips for Your Child with ASD and Food Selectivity

If your child has a limited number of foods he/she will eat, try some of the following basic steps:

  • Introduce foods with a flavor or texture similar to a favorite food
    • Introduce strawberries if your child likes strawberry ice cream
    • Try low fat frozen yogurt if your child likes ice cream
    • Introduce fish sticks or fried vegetables if your child likes chicken nuggets
  • Expose children to new foods gradually
    • Place new foods on the table only for the first few times, then perhaps on their plate without expecting them to try the food
  • Do not force your child to eat all of a new food, allow experimentation
    • Allow only tastes, touch, or smell during introduction periods if needed
  • Mirror desired behavior by eating new food as a family, talk about a new food positively
  • Remember, changing behavior and/or accepting new things can take time, effort, and patience

Consult the physicians within Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition at Riley at IU Health for consultation or referral if you have a child or patient with an ASD and specific nutrition or intestinal concerns.

Charles Vanderpool, MD

Author of this Article

Dr. Vanderpool, MD, is a faculty physician in the division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition. His primary interests involve Pediatric nutrition, celiac disease, and short bowel syndrome/intestinal failure, as well as the general care of children with intestinal issues. He is currently seeing patients in Indianapolis, Carmel, and South Bend.

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