Healthy eating not only promotes growth and development, but also provides important opportunities for children to socialize during meals. A new, comprehensive analysis of feeding behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) indicates that these children are five times more likely to have a feeding problem, including extreme tantrums during meals, severe food selectivity and ritualistic mealtime behaviors.
Researchers at Marcus Autism Center and the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of all published, peer-reviewed research relating to feeding problems and autism. Examination of dietary nutrients showed significantly lower intake of calcium and protein and a higher number of nutritional deficits overall among children with autism.
The results are reported in the Feb. 1, 2013, online early edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
"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 a child's risk for poor medical and developmental outcomes, including malnutrition, growth retardation, social deficits and poor academic achievement. Emerging evidence suggests the feeding problems and dietary patterns associated with autism may place this population at risk for long-term medical complications, including poor bone growth, obesity and other diet-related diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease) in adolescence or adulthood.
While parents of children with autism frequently express concern regarding how few foods make up their child's diet, the systematic review and meta-analysis led by Sharp and colleagues represents the first attempt to combine outcomes from studies providing empirical evidence about levels of feeding problems and nutrient intake in children with autism compared with peers.
"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."