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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

No Effect on Nutritional Status continued...

Daniel Coury, MD, chief of developmental behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and the medical director of the Autism Treatment Network, says that the findings are reassuring for many parents. "If parents are concerned about nutritional intake among their children with autism because they eat a selective diet, it looks like most are getting adequate nutrition," he says.

The Autism Treatment Network is a network of 14 centers across the U.S. and Canada focused on developing standards of care for treating children with autism spectrum disorder.

"There has been concern that food preferences reflect parents' food preferences [meaning] if mama doesn't liked broccoli, she won't serve broccoli, and this study suggests that intrinsic food selectivity in children on the spectrum is probably related to the spectrum, not their parents' eating habits," he says.

This too should help vindicate parents who may blame themselves for their children's food or feeding issues, Coury says.

Picky Eating Is Not a Red Flag

None of this should suggest that finicky eating is a sign of autism, he stresses.

"If you have a picky eater or a child that is difficult to feed, this does not mean that they have autism or even are at increased risk," Coury tells WebMD. "The children in this study were more likely to have feeding issues, but if a parent of a 4-month-old or an 8-month-old is trying to get their toddler to eat baby food and their baby is refusing, I would not worry."

Autism is more of a big-picture diagnosis, he says.

"At this young age, hallmarks of autism are in the social and communication areas, so if the child is socially showing interest and interaction with parents and siblings, that is a good sign," Coury says. "If the child is starting to mimic sounds and use words and repeat words like mama and dada, these are also good signs."

The new findings may not apply to the autism diet, a gluten-free, casein-free eating plan that has grown in popularity in the U.S.

"It depends on the special diet, but nutritional deficiencies are a possibility depending on what they are focused on, and some diets may require supplementing," he says. "If your child is not on a regular diet, you may need some monitoring to make sure that all their nutritional needs are being met."

Coury's advice? Run it by your doctor.

Susan Hyman MD, an associate professor of pediatrics and the division chief of neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics at Golisano Children's Hospital of the University of Rochester Medical Center, N.Y., agrees. "When you manipulate what children would normally eat, you change the rules," she says. "This study would not be reassuring if your child eats a little mac and cheese, a little frozen waffle and 30 or so other foods, which is a more typical restricted autism diet," she says.

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