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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

When a Child With Autism Refuses Most Foods

Case report suggests vitamin deficiencies, serious health problems can follow
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A chest x-ray showed his right lung and the lower parts of his left lung were filling up with fluid. Tests showed the right side of his heart was functioning poorly. Physicians thought he might have pneumonia, or even cancer, but those possibilities were eliminated by further tests.

The physicians had no idea what was happening. "The definitive diagnosis of what was underlying his pulmonary hypertension [lung problems] was hard," recalled Duvall. "But then his mother told us he had bleeding gums when his teeth were brushed."

That simple clue led to the boy's diagnosis: severe nutritional deficiency. The bleeding gums were a classic sign of scurvy, a disease caused by not getting enough vitamin C. The doctors ordered a blood test to check his vitamin and mineral levels. They discovered he had a completely undetectable level of vitamin C and inadequate amounts of vitamin B1, B6, B12 and D.

It was then that the physicians asked about the boy's diet. His mother told them that he would only eat chicken nuggets, crackers, cookies and water. He refused milk, juice, vegetables and fruits, and would not take any form of vitamin.

To treat him, the physicians put him on "an intravenous concoction of vitamins to replete his total body deficiency," explained Duvall. His heart and lung problems were soon resolved, as was his limp, which had been caused by bone disease associated with his poor diet.

Once home, his mother finally found a way to get him to accept taking a vitamin, Duvall said. She crushed the pill and mixed it into a "peanut butter fluff" sandwich, which involves putting marshmallow cream and peanut butter on bread. That combination successfully disguised the taste of the vitamin. He also started getting regular vitamin injections from his pediatrician.

Duvall emphasized that the risk of severe health problems from nutritional deficiencies goes beyond children with autism or behavioral problems. Those also at risk include people with anorexia and other restrictive eating disorders; the elderly; those with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia; alcoholics; immigrants and refugees; and patients with chronic diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.

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