Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are five times more likely to have nutritional deficiences and problems during meals such as severe food selectivity, ritualistic behavior, and extreme tantrums, says a new study by researchers at the Marcus Autism Center and the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.
Researchers conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of all published peer-reviewed research related to feeding problems and autism. Overall, researchers found that children with autism showed a significantly lower intake of calcium and protein and a higher number of nutritional deficits.
"The results of this study have broad implications for children with autism," says William Sharp, PhD, a behavioral pediatric psychologist in the Pediatric Feeding Disorders Program at Marcus Autism Center and 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."
Chronic feeding problems increase the risks for children with autism for poor developmental outcomes such as malnutrition, retarded growth, poor academic performance, and social deficits.
These children are also at a higher risk for long-term medical problems such as obesity, poor bone growth, and other diet-related diseases in adolescence or adulthood.
Researchers say the study is the first systemic review and meta-analysis that combines data from studies regarding levels of feeding problems and the nutrient intake of children in comparison to peers who do not have autism.
"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," says Sharp.
"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."
For example, the data suggests that the elimination diets commonly used as a form of treatment for autism could increase the nutritional risks
The research team used the data to develop autism-specific recommendations that can be used as a guide for future research activities in this area for healthcare providers such as:
- Screening for concerns about feeding and nutritional deficits/excesses
- Measuring the size and proportions of the children’s bodies as part of routine medical evaluations
- Considering the child’s unique feeding problems and nutritional needs
- Reviewing the potential consequences of pursuing an elimination diet
"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."
The results are reported in the Feb. 1, 2013, online early edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.