Children who are suffering from autism often experience abnormal eating habits because of symptoms associated with autism. Due to the high energy demands of children to facilitate their rapid growth, this behavior stunts their intellectual and physical development. If your child is going through this, read on to learn how you can help them eat a balanced diet while managing their condition.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and What Causes It?
Autism spectrum disorder affects sufferers’ ability to communicate with others. Symptoms may appear as easily as infancy, usually before the age of three, and they differ based on the form of autism the sufferer has. Autism is thus classified into three major types:
- Classic autism, where patients have notable impediments in language and social skill development, unusual hobbies, and intellectual disabilities.
- Asperger’s syndrome where patients have milder impediments in social skill development but little to no language or intellectual disabilities. This also manifests in intense fascination with and resulting expertise in a topic of interest.
- Atypical autism, where patients suffer only some of the symptoms of autism, such as impediments in social skill development to a lesser extent.
There is no single cause that leads to autism. However, experts believe that problems with multiple genes, environmental causes, and brain development may be the culprits behind autism. Environmental causes include exposure to viruses (measles, mumps, rubella), heavy metals, pesticides, etc.
How Does Autism Affect the Dietary Habits of Afflicted Children?
Because children with autism display a variety of unusual, obsessive behaviors, these, in turn, affect their eating patterns and thus lead to the following dietary habits:
Children with autism have extremely specific preferences when it comes to their eating habits. They won’t touch certain kinds of foods based on their color, temperature, or texture. Sometimes, they even refuse to eat because the food was not arranged on the plate according to their preferences. This is a result of their heightened sensitivity to things around them, which leads to anxiety if they are refused.
Afflicted children commonly develop dislikes for vegetables, fruits, and soft, slippery foods.
Nutritional Deficiencies from Low-Calorie Intake
Unless what they are doing is one of their hobbies, afflicted children are far less likely to pay attention long enough to finish tasks. This can translate to unfinished plates during meal times. Combine this with picky eating, and your child is at risk of consuming too few calories. This will result in eating disorders, developmental impediments, and constant fatigue.
Difficult Bowel Movement
Children and adults need between 20-30 grams of fiber per day to remain healthy. If there is a lack of fiber and water in the diet, both digestion and bowel movement become difficult. Children with autism who are commonly averse to greens are specifically at risk of this happening.
Negative Side Effects from Medications
The various medications used to treat your child might have side effects that affect appetite. Drugs such as Ritalin, which is a stimulant, may decrease appetite, thus leading to caloric and nutritional deficiencies. Other drugs might increase appetite leading to weight gain or affect the way nutrients are absorbed by the body.
Methods to Combat the Negative Dietary Habits and Symptoms of Afflicted Children
If your autism-affected child shows any of the dietary behaviors mentioned above, now is the time to take action! By conditioning your child using the following strategies, you can teach them to overcome their bad eating habits, eat a balanced meal, and reach developmental milestones.
As mentioned before, ASD-afflicted children are sensitive to their environment and become easily stressed out when overwhelmed or in unfamiliar territory. Therefore, getting your child into a routine for mealtimes is beneficial as it prevents this anxiety.
You can also further ease anxiety by encouraging your child to pick out what kind of lighting they prefer during meals or what kind of chair they like to sit in. These make meals more enjoyable for them.
Remain Patient in the Face of Picky Eating
Doing the cooking and cleaning, keeping up with your career, and looking after your child are three essential tasks that most parents are faced with. Thus, it’s no wonder why being a parent is hard. This also explains that when your child is a picky eater, you may feel the urge to scream or pull your own hair out. If this is you, step back and breathe!
One simple way to tackle this problem is to familiarize your child with the food he/she rejects. Familiarity eases anxiety, which leads to acceptance. By simply taking your child to the supermarket with you, showing them the food they dislike, watching documentaries about where the food comes from and preparing the food together, you can increase familiarity with that food group. However, don’t be frustrated when your first attempts fail. Keep trying!
Different supplements can help ease the symptoms of ASD for patients. However, to ensure that the supplement you provide is working, it is best to start with one supplement for a period of time to determine if it works for the particular child. The following supplements have shown to have positive effects on ASD-afflicted children:
Children with autism often suffer from poor gut health. This is because they are likely to have more of pathogenic bacteria such as Clostridia and Sutterrella, and less of good bacteria such as Faecalibacteria bacteria in their gut. They are also vulnerable to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
By consuming the host of beneficial good bacteria present in probiotics, your child will experience fewer digestive problems, and the intensity of their symptoms will lessen. You can read more about this topic on the Autism Parenting Magazine to learn the complex process behind this theory and how to use probiotics to help your child.
Omega 3 fatty acids are integral for proper intellectual development. Furthermore, children with ASD have been shown to have an imbalance in their ratios of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. This exacerbates the symptoms of ASD. To prevent this, your child should be given 1.5 g/day of omega-3 fatty acids every day. According to research, children with ASD who do this have been reported to experience less anxiety, greater attention spans, and improvement in cognitive abilities.
Elimination Diet Therapy
There are many elimination diets out there. The most popular one is the gluten or casein-free diet. There is some research to support that eliminating these components from the diet can prevent the gut from leaking them into the bloodstream and exacerbating symptoms. However, this does not work for every child, and taking drastic steps such as eliminating an entire food group from the diet could lead to deficiencies.
Another elimination diet is the Lifestyle, Eating, and Performance (LEAP) protocol. This requires professional intervention where a blood test called the Mediator Release Test will be used to determine which food groups trigger symptoms. A diet plan is then developed, which eliminates these triggers.
Consult with a Dietician
No matter what path you choose, whether that includes supplements or diet plans, you will need the guidance of a registered dietician along the way. Professional help ensures that your child can eliminate trigger foods while getting sufficient nutrients and calories and take an appropriate dose of supplements.
In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that 1 in 40 children suffered from autism in the USA. This reflects the increasing rise of awareness among parents about the condition occurring in their young children. Luckily, with early treatment and proper care, especially towards eating habits, the condition of the afflicted child will gradually improve over time.