Young children’s early eating habits linked to later autistic-like personality traits

New research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has shown a link between young children’s early eating habits and higher levels of traits associated with autism as adults.

The research published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found children who ate a less varied diet, and particularly less yoghurt and citrus fruits, when they were aged between one and three years old were more likely to score higher on a test for autistic-like traits as adults.

These personality traits are similar to the characteristics of people diagnosed with autism and include difficulties with social skills, communication and imagination, and the ability to switch focus from one thing to another thing.

The research team from ECU, Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia, University of Tasmania and Curtin University examined data from 811 young people as part of the Gen2 Raine Study.

Lead researcher from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences, Catherine Panossian, said her research points to dietary assessment as a potential early screening tool for autism and autistic-like traits as well as highlighting the importance of diet and nutrition for those children.

It’s normal for young children to be fussy eaters, however children with autism often have feeding behaviors that go beyond normal picky eating, and families often require support. Our study showed that as food variety decreased in early childhood, the more likely these children would grow up to be young adults with significantly more autistic-like traits.”

Catherine Panossian, Lead Researcher, ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences

Ms Panossian said it was important to note the research was not showing a causal link between diet and those traits.

“Additionally, those with higher autistic-like traits also had a significantly lower frequency of eating yoghurt and citrus fruits,” she said.

“This may be due to the texture of the yoghurt or the tangy taste of the citrus fruits. Often children with autism can have sensory sensitivities and this may impact the types of foods they eat.”

Low dairy consumption is of particular concern for this population as calcium deficiency and associated low bone mineral density and osteoporosis are known health issues.

Where to from here?

Ms Panossian said including a dietary screening tool as part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis could allow for better support of children with a higher level of autistic-like traits who don’t meet the criteria for ASD.

We could offer early intervention for children who may be at risk of nutritional deficiencies. This is important because seriously restricted eating habits in young children can affect their cognitive, motor and behavioral development and in turn their ability to communicate. While we know that children with autism are a nutritionally vulnerable group, those who have higher levels of autistic-like traits may also be vulnerable. Early dietary intervention could ensure these children have the best chance to grow and reach their full developmental potential.”

Catherine Panossian

The article ‘Young Adults with High Autistic-Like Traits Displayed Lower Food Variety and Diet Quality in Childhood’ was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and can be found on the journal’s webpage.

Source:
Journal reference:

Panossian, C., et al (2020) Young Adults with High Autistic-Like Traits Displayed Lower Food Variety and Diet Quality in Childhood. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04567-4.

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