Autism: Why Being a Picky Eater Is Okay

Children with autism commonly have preferences for a limited number of foods. Many children with autism also show behavioral difficulties including impaired social interaction and communication, both of which can impact feeding time. This can be very difficult for parents trying to make sure their child is eating a health, well-rounded diet. For parents raising children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a new study from the UK published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics provides not only clarity, but some peace of mind. Children with ASD may be picky eaters, but their fussiness is not impacting their growth rate.

Nearly 13,000 children were followed prospectively at 6, 15, 24, 38, and 54 months and parents were given questionnaires related to feeding and food frequency. A test to analyze the variety of the child’s diet was created. When assessing all data at 38 months, 86 children were found to have ASD (classical autism, atypical autism, Asperger’s Syndrome or unclassified autism). The researchers studied 79 of these children and compared them to 12,900 others as controls.

The analysis found that feeding symptoms began in infancy, and by age 15 months, the children had clearly limited diets relative to their non-autistic peers. They discovered that the children with ASD were slower to transition online pokies to solid foods after 6 months of age, and that between the ages of 15 and 54 months, these children were more often reported by their parents to be difficult to feed and very picky eaters.  Questionnaires given to the parents revealed that children with ASD ate fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, though they also consumed fewer sweets and sodas.

But despite these differences in feeding behaviors and dietary variety, the researchers found that overall energy intake and growth patterns were not negatively impacted.  At 18 months, the autistic children showed no differences in height, weight, and body mass index as compared to their non-autistic peers. Even more notably, at 38 months, the children with ASD reported consumed the same amounts of overall energy, total fat, carbohydrates, and protein as non-ASD children.  At 7 years, these children still showed normal growth patterns and even had similar iron intakes in their diets.

A small number of the autistic children were reportedly on special diets, such as a gluten-free casein-free diet. Special diets are often given to ASD children in response to stomach upset, which is common in this population, or in an effort to improve impaired social interactions and communication skills. According to the researchers, the effectiveness of such diets is debatable.

Parents of autistic children know the daily challenges with feeding and behaviors. While it may take a lot of work, parents can now take some comfort in knowing that their children are likely to grow normally and get the energy and nutrients they need.

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