February 10, 2013

Children With Autism Display Feeding Problems And Nutritional Deficiencies

Recent studies have found that the selective eating habits of autistic children may be more harmful than previously understood. In particular, researchers from Emory University recently revealed that children who are autistic have significant risk at developing feeding problems and suffering from nutritional deficiencies in the long run.

According to the American Psychological Association, autism is a severe developmental disability linked to impaired social skills, as well as difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication. Individuals with autism may have also have limited interests and strange sleeping or eating behaviors. These strange behaviors may include atypical sensory response and gastrointestinal problems, according to a 2012 study by researchers at the University of Missouri.

“These problems can have a very real impact on daily life. Children with anxiety may be distressed or reluctant to engage in new activities, and those with sensory problems may have trouble paying attention or participating in over-stimulating environments,” remarked Micah Mazurek, an assistant professor and clinical child psychologist at the University of Missouri, in a prepared statement. “These children may also suffer uncomfortable GI problems that they may not be able to communicate about to adults.”

In particular, this comprehensive analysis on feeding behavior for autistic children was conducted by a team from the Marcus Autism Center and the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine who looked at peer-reviewed research on autism and feeding issues. The study found that these children have a five times higher chance of developing feeding problems, including having tantrums during mealtimes, practicing ritualistic mealtimes, and limiting their selection of food items. They also had lower intake of calcium and protein.

“The results of this study have broad implications for children with autism,” remarked William Sharp, an assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, in a statement. “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.”

The findings are particularly important because healthy eating allows for growth and development in younger children. Mealtimes also serve as an opportunity for children to learn how to socialize with individuals in their peer group. However, children with autism who have chronic feeding problems may suffer from malnutrition, low academic achievement, and growth retardation. These deficiencies and issues may extend into adulthood and have long-term medical impact, such as poor bone growth, obesity, and other diseases related to poor diet.

“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,” continued Sharp, who is also as a behavioral pediatric psychologist in the Pediatric Feeding Disorders Program at Marcus Autism Center. “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.”

The researchers believe that this is the first study to examine empirical outcomes from a variety of studies and observe the differences in nutritional intake among children with autism and children who do not have autism. They used the findings of the study to provide autism-specific recommendations to help pave the way for clinical activities and other research in the future. A few recommendations they listed included conducting screenings for feeding concerns and following-up on any nutritional deficits or excesses.

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

In the future, the team of investigators is interested in completing further studies on the health consequences related to atypical dietary patterns, as well as the social issues and family stress that correlate with chronic mealtimes issues for children with autism.

Image Credit: 3445128471 / Shutterstock

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