Nutrition and Autism

Many individuals with autism have food aversions and sensitivities. Many also have behavioral issues that make mealtime particularly challenging. For good reason, parents and other caregivers of autistic children worry about providing them with healthy diets.

published meta-analysis of scientific studies confirms these parental concerns and provides insights into the most common nutritional deficiencies associated with autism. It appears online this week in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Researchers at Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine reviewed and analyzed all published, peer-reviewed research relating to eating problems and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They found that children with ASD are five times more likely to have mealtime challenges such as tantrums, extreme food selectivity and ritualistic eating behaviors.

They also found inadequate nutrition to be more common among children with autism than in those unaffected by the disorder. In particular, they found an overall low intake of calcium and protein. Calcium is crucial for building strong bones. Adequate protein is important for growth, mental development and health.

Chronic eating problems also increase a child's risk for social difficulties and poor academic achievement, the researchers note. This may also increase risk for diet-related diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease in adolescence and adulthood.

The researchers expressed additional concern about alternative diets. Many parents report that their children’s autism symptoms and related medical issues improve when they remove casein (milk protein) and gluten (wheat protein) from their diets. However, casein/gluten-free diets can increase the challenge of ensuring adequate nutrition.

"This highlights the importance of assessing diet as part of routine healthcare for all individuals with ASD,” comments Daniel Coury, M.D., medical director of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network. Dr. Coury is also a developmental-behavioral pediatrician with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. “We know that the use of alternative diets is common among parents of children with ASD,” he says. “And so we encourage families to consult with their provider when considering these diets. While many of these diets are safe, they have potential for nutritional deficiencies."

The study’s authors also called for more research to provide further guidance for families and doctors. Autism Speaks is currently funding a number of research projects aimed at better understanding the nutritional needs of those with autism. You can explore these and other funded research using this website’s Grant Search.

For advice and perspective on eating issues, please see these recent blog posts by Autism Speaks-funded researchers and ATN clinicians: