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Picky Eating by Autistic Kids Won't Affect Growth

Study Shows No Impact on Nutrition and Development for Kids Who Are Choosy About Diet
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 19, 2010 -- Children with autism spectrum disorder tend to be extremely picky when it comes to what they will or won't eat, but new research shows that it doesn't seem to affect their growth and development.

The findings appear in the August issue of Pediatrics.

"Although the autism spectrum disorder [ASD] children were eating less variety of foods compared to the rest, they were not growing less well or more likely to have anemia (low levels of iron in the blood)," says Pauline Emmett, PhD, a senior research fellow at the Nutrition Centre for Child & Adolescent Health at the University of Bristol, England, in an email. "Their diets were similar in energy and most nutrients, so it suggests that parents of ASD children can relax a little about whether the diet their children are eating is likely to be adequate."

The CDC estimates that about one in 110 children in the U.S. have an autism spectrum disorder, the umbrella term given to a group of disorders that can range from the mild to the severe and that often affect social interaction and communication.

Feeding Problems Show Up Early in Autism

In the new study, children who were on the autism spectrum started eating solid foods later than their counterparts who did not have autism, and they were more likely to be called "slow-feeders" by their moms starting at around 6 months of age.

Children with autism were also described as "difficult to feed" and "very choosy" from the age of 15 months to 4.5 years, when compared with children not affected by autism, the study shows. Starting at age 15 months, children with autism tended to eat a more selective diet than their counterparts without ASD and were less likely to eat the same foods as their moms starting at age 2. By 4.5 years, 8% of children with autism in the study were on a special diet.

No Effect on Nutritional Status

In general, children with an autism spectrum disorder ate fewer vegetables and fruit, sweets, and carbonated drinks than their counterparts without autism. Still, these eating habits did not have any bearing on energy or calorie intake or result in any significant nutritional shortfalls at age 7.

"There are many ways of making up an adequate diet, and although nutritionists usually advise 'plenty of variety' in foods eaten, a less varied diet can be adequate," Emmett says.

"If the behaviors are very extreme in a minority of ASD children there could be a chance of nutritional inadequacy, but our study is saying that this is not the case for the majority," she says. "Parents who are worried about this should see their family doctor or ask to see a trained registered dietitian."

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