Nutrition for Autistic Kids

Many individuals with autism have feeding problems, such as sensitivities, selectivity and aversions to different foods. Tantrums, meltdowPhoto: Family Making a Salad Togetherns and other behavioral issues can also make mealtime especially challenging for autistic kids. In some cases, restricting consumption of certain foods can help reduce symptoms of autism but restrictive diets can also keep a child from getting the nutrition he needs to grow and develop properly.

Feeding Problems, Behavioral Issues, and Nutrition for Autistic Kids

Feeding problems combined with behavioral issues can lead to poor nutrition. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are five times more likely to experience significant feeding problems as compared with their peers.

The researchers also found that kids with autism consumed a lot less calcium and protein compared with children without ASD. Calcium is essential for strong teeth and bones. Protein is important for growth, mental development, and overall good health.

Chronic eating problems and the nutritional deficits they cause increase the risk of poor academic achievement and social difficulties. Poor nutrition associated with chronic eating problems can raise a child’s chances of developing one or more diet-related diseases, such as obesity and heart disease, in childhood and later on in life.

Food Triggers and Symptoms of Autism

Eating certain foods can worsen autism symptoms. Sugar can cause hyperactivity in some individuals, for example, while artificial preservatives may cause hyperactivity in others.

Some parents note an increase in symptoms when their child eats gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, or the casein in milk products so they put their kids on gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diets. The theory is that food allergies worsen symptoms of autism so restrictive diets should reduce symptoms.

The problem with these restrictive diets, however, is that they may prevent a child from getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs. Foods rich in gluten and casein are major sources of protein as well as essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D, calcium, and zinc. Children who already avoid certain foods because of extreme selectivity and aversion issues are at special risk for nutritional deficits when on a restrictive diet.

Restrictive diets can also be difficult to maintain. A child may not find anything she can eat at the school cafeteria or on a restaurant menu. Worse still, meltdowns and other behavioral problems may develop when a child cannot enjoy the food offered at birthday parties, while traveling, and during other special occasions. Before putting children on restrictive diets, parents should first verify that food restrictions indeed curb behavioral problems.

One of the best ways to determine if food sensitivities or allergies worsen symptoms is to keep a short food diary of everything a kid eats for about a week, and a symptom journal describing the child’s symptoms for that week. To avoid the risk of malnutrition for a child with ASD on restrictive diets, a parent can work to expand the number of nutrient-rich foods that appeal to the youngster or enlist the help of a dietician or autism specialist to determine if nutritional supplements can help.

Healthcare professionals and behavior therapists can use a child’s food diary and symptom journal to help parents identify potential allergens and triggers in the foods their young one eats. A dietician can also assess the child’s diet and recommend supplements, such as multivitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B6, or magnesium. To make it easier to determine what is working and what is not, children with autism should start one supplement at a time and track behavior with a symptom journal.

Nutrition is a balancing act for kids with autism. Eating the wrong foods can increase symptoms while avoiding certain foods can lead to poor nutrition and other behavioral or health problems. For more information, talk with your Houston behavior therapist.