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Food aversions vs. nutritious diet: How can parents of children with autism encourage healthy eating?

Food aversions vs. nutritious diet: How can parents of children with autism encourage healthy eating?

As any parent or carer of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is well aware, raising a child with behavioural issues can be extremely challenging – especially when it comes to mealtime.

It’s quite common for children with ASD to have strict food aversions and be more sensitive or “picky” about what they eat. In fact, children with ASD are five times more likely to have challenges during mealtime than a typically developing child.

Given that children with ASD tend to be extremely selective of the food they eat, and maintain very ritualistic eating behaviours, anything on the plate that doesn’t fit these criteria can often result in a meltdown.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Three times a day, every day, parents of children with ASD are facing this issue of walking the line between a healthy diet for their child vs. a meal that their child will actually eat.

With so many other matters to attend to, it’s inevitable that sometimes a full belly is more convenient than a nutritious meal.

The trouble here is that while there are many programs in place to address and assist with issues related to raising a child with ASD, current interventions for children with ASD do not address how food selectivity can impact a child’s nutrition and weight.

Children with ASD are five times more likely to be obese, and twice as likely to be overweight than a typically developing child, and inadequate nutrition also tends to be much more common among children with autism – particularly in regards to calcium and protein, both of which are crucial for physical growth, mental development and general health.

The issues associated with chronic eating or an unbalanced diet extend beyond a child’s physical health, too – research indicates that the chances of social difficulties and poor academic achievement are much higher among children with chronic eating disorders.

And while it’s no secret that spending too much time staring at smartphones, TV’s and computer screens isn’t good for any child, numerous recent studies indicate that children with autism are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of screen-time, including increased irritability and difficulty sleeping.

So, what resources are out there to assist parents or carers of children with ASD in encouraging healthier diets, regular exercise and reduced screen-time for their children?

Well, first it’s worth noting that while the issue of food selectivity on the weight and nutrition of children with ASD is still relatively unaddressed, regular exercise has been proven to drastically improve the social, behavioural and cognitive state of children with ASD, so promoting an active lifestyle and encouraging outdoor activities is a great start.

As for nutrition and diet, earlier this year a panel of speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, clinical psychologists and dieticians designed a program based on their own combined expertise in various fields related to the eating habits of children with ASD, as well as relevant research carried out in recent years.

The eight-week program involved parent training and food exploration, and incorporated exercise and social skills development throughout. Data was collected to determine if there was any change in behaviour over the course of the eight weeks. This data included participants’ BMIs, the Behavioural Paediatric Feeding Assessment, diaries which documented food consumption, screen-time and amount of daily exercise, as well as parental surveys and interviews.

Initial findings revealed various changes in behaviour; the most notable being an increase in parents’ confidence to make positive changes towards their child’s diet, physical activity and amount of screen-time. This group will continue to run in 2020 and 2021, with the goal of directing future interventions towards facilitating a healthy lifestyle for children with ASD.Program made possible by Helen Leech Endowment through Perpetual’s IMPACT Philanthropy Program.

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ActiveAte program for kids with ASD is designed to create health and well-being through fun physical activity and mealtime strategies developed by Kids Are Kids! Read more about the program here