Nutrition

Nutrition plays an integral role in living a healthy lifestyle. Many children and adults with autism face challenges that can make a nutritious diet especially difficult. Food sensitivities, gastroenterological issues and restricted or repetitive behaviors are just a few examples. 

Autism Treatment Network Research on Nutrition

Researchers with the Autism Speaks ATN study nutrition and its influence on health, behavior and other areas of life. From this work, we know that, like many kids in the US, those with ASD often eat less healthy food than they should. Over half of children with ASD (56%) take vitamins to make up for this. Unfortunately, the multivitamins often have the vitamins and minerals that kids are already getting enough of. This leads to kids having too much of some vitamins and not enough of others. Even when kids take multivitamins, parents should watch how much vitamin D and calcium their child eats because both vitamins are important for bone health.

The strength and thickness of the bone (bone density) at the hip and lower back of boys with ASD is lower than in boys without ASD. Boys with autism and boys without autism are about the same size and weight, but boys with autism get less exercise than boys without autism. To help make bones stronger all kids with ASD need more exercise and need more protein (meats), calcium (milk products and leafy greens), and phosphorus (meats, milk, beans, and nuts).

Another important nutrient for children is iron because irons helps the body use oxygen and grow properly. Children with ASD are not more likely to be iron deficient than those without ASD, but it is still important to look for signs of iron deficiency. Signs include being more tired than usual, feeling dizzy and having skin that is paler and drier than usual.

For the full reference list and more Frequently Asked Questions addressed by ATN research on nutrition, visit asatn.org.

*Disclaimer: This summary is based on research conducted by Autism Treatment Network (ATN) members. It is not a summary of the entire body of research literature available on this subject

Nutrition Resources

We have compiled the resources below to help you and your family work to overcome these challenges. 

Tool Kits from the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network

Exploring Feeding Behavior in Autism: A Parent's Guide

Managing Constipation in Children: A Parent's Guide

Pica Guide for Parents

Advice from the Experts: Through the years we have asked some of the top experts in their fields to share helpful information on topics related to eating and nutrition. The posts are organized by topic below.

Selective Eating & Feeding Challenges

Helping Families with Feeding Issues

Autism and mealtime: A therapist’s top ten tips for success

Seven Ways to Help a Picky Eater

What Is It about Autism and Food?

Parent of Teen with Autism Seeks Help with Narrowing Food Choices

Child with Autism Won’t Eat Foods that ‘Smell’

Help! Our Adult Son Has Severe Autism and Extremely Narrow Diet

Parent Seeks Advice: Child with Autism Eats Only Candy & Chips

Parents Seek Help: Child with Severe Autism Eats Only Sweets

Encouraging Picky Eaters with Autism to Try New Foods

Parent Needs Help: 4-year-old with Autism Won’t Eat Solid Foods:

Will eating-disorder program help with autism-related food aversions?

GF/CF Diet and other allergies/sensitivities:

Study: Gluten/casein-free diet doesn’t improve autism symptoms (2015)

Follow-up Q&A with author of study on autism and gluten/casein-free diet (2018)

Unraveling Autism’s Gluten Mystery (2013)

Autism and the Gluten/Casein-Free Diet: When Can We Stop?

Obese Child with Autism Gaining Weight on Gluten/Casein-Free Diet

Can food allergies aggravate autism symptoms? 

Obesity/Weight-related challenges:

Autism challenge: How to stop teen’s progression from chubby to obese 

Autism and Obesity: When Exercise and Healthy Diet Aren’t Enough 

Obese Child with Autism Gaining Weight on Gluten/Casein-Free Diet 

How Can We Stem Weight Gain Related to Behavioral Meds for Autism?

Pica

The Pica-Autism Connection: Help & Perspective in "Got Questions?"

Probiotics

Guidance on Probiotics

New findings on probiotics and autism: What you need to know

Supplements and Nutrition:

For kids with autism, supplements often result in nutrient imbalances

GI Problems and Supplements

More Nutrition Resources

A Summary of Studies on Nutrition and Autism

Five Fabulous Tips to Help You Build Your Child's Foundation for Good Health

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 

Nutrition.gov

Autism and Healthy Eating

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