Atypical eating behaviors may be a sign a child should be screened for autism, according to a new study from Penn State College of Medicine.
Atypical eating behaviors were present in 70 percent of children with autism
Research by Susan Mayes, professor of psychiatry, found that atypical eating behaviors were present in 70 percent of children with autism, which is 15 times more common than in neurotypical children.
Atypical eating behaviors may include severely limited food preferences, hypersensitivity to food textures or temperatures, and pocketing food without swallowing.
These behaviors present in many one-year-olds with autism
According to Mayes, these behaviors are present in many one-year-olds with autism and could signal to doctors and parents that a child may have autism.
“If a primary care provider hears about these behaviors from parents, they should consider referring the child for an autism screening.”
The earlier autism is diagnosed, the sooner the child can begin treatment
Mayes stated that the earlier autism is diagnosed, the sooner the child can begin treatment with a behavior analyst. Previous studies have shown applied behavior analysis to be most effective if implemented during the preschool years. Behavior analysts use a number of interventions, including rewards, to make positive changes in the children’s behavior and teach a range of needed skills.
Keith Williams, director of the Feeding Program at Penn State Children’s Hospital, uses this therapy to help a variety of individuals with unusual eating behaviors. He said that identifying and correcting these behaviors can help ensure children are eating a proper diet.
“I once treated a child who ate nothing but bacon and drank only iced tea”
“I once treated a child who ate nothing but bacon and drank only iced tea,” Williams said. “Unusual diets like these don’t sustain children.”
Williams also noted that there is a distinct difference between worrisome eating behaviors and the typical picky eating habits of young children. He explained that most children without special needs will slowly add foods to their diets during the course of development, but children with autism spectrum disorders, without intervention, will often remain selective eaters.
Many children with autism eat a narrow diet
We see children who continue to eat baby food or who won’t try different textures. We even see children who fail to transition from bottle feeding,” said Keith Williams, director of the Feeding Program, Penn State Children’s Hospital.
Mayes said that many children with autism eat a narrow diet consisting primarily of grain products, like pasta and bread, and chicken nuggets. She said that because children with autism have sensory hypersensitivities and dislike change, they may not want to try new foods and will be sensitive to certain textures. They often eat only foods of a particular brand, color or shape.
Research also showed the following
The research also showed that most children with autism who had atypical eating behaviors had two or more types – almost a quarter had three or more. Yet, none of the children with other developmental disorders who did not have autism had three or more. According to Williams, this is a common, clinical phenomenon – and it has prompted him and his colleagues to recommend some children for further evaluation.
“When we evaluate young children with multiple eating problems, we start to wonder if these children might also have the diagnosis of autism,” Williams said. “In many cases, they eventually do receive this diagnosis.”
How the study was conducted
The researchers evaluated the eating behaviors described in parent interviews of more than 2000 children from two studies. They investigated the difference in the frequency of unusual eating behaviors between typical children and those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disorders.
Williams says the study data show that atypical eating behaviors may help diagnostically distinguish autism from other disorders. Even though children from both groups have unusual eating habits, they are seven times more common in autism than in other disorders according to the study data.
“This study provided further evidence that these unusual feeding behaviors are the rule and not the exception for children with autism,” Williams said.
- Mayes, S.D. & Zickgraf, H. (2019) Atypical eating behaviors in children and adolescents with autism, ADHD, other disorders, and typical development. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2019.04.002.
Razi Berry is the founder and publisher of the journal Naturopathic Doctor News & Review, which has been in print since 2005, and the premier consumer-faced website of naturopathic medicine, NaturalPath. She is the host of The Natural Cancer Prevention Summit and The Heart Revolution-Heal, Empower and Follow Your Heart, and the popular 10 week Sugar Free Summer program. From a near death experience as a young girl that healed her failing heart, to later overcoming infertility and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia through naturopathic medicine, Razi has lived the mind/body healing paradigm. Her projects uniquely capture the tradition and philosophy of naturopathy: The healing power of nature, the vital life force in every living thing and the undeniable role that science and mind/body medicine have in creating health and overcoming dis-ease. Follow Razi on social media: Find her on Facebook at Razi Berry, on Instagram at Razi.Berry, join her Love is Medicine group to explore the convergence of love and health, and find more Love is Medicine podcast episodes here.