CDC Study Flags High Rate of Obesity among Teens with Autism

Medication side effects may play role in doubling obesity rate among teens with autism; associated health problems highlight need for expert help

March 10, 2014

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have documented high rates of obesity among adolescents with developmental disabilities. The highest rate – around 32 percent – was among those with autism.

In their report, the investigators urge that more be done to help prevent and manage obesity in “these already vulnerable adolescents.”

Of particular concern, the study associated the combination of autism and obesity with increased rates of health problems including asthma and migraine headaches. This follows a study last month that associated obesity in children with autism with increased anxiety, depression and sleep problems.

“We’ve long known that nutritional problems, including obesity, are very common in autism,” says Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president and head of medical research. “These concerns are compounded by the use of psychotropic medications, especially medications like risperidone and aripiprazole, which can cause severe weight gain and metabolic problems.” Dr. Wang was not involved in the study. 

Dr. Wang urges physicians to help families manage diet and activity levels in children with autism – and to use behavioral medications only when other approaches to behavior management are unsuccessful.

In their investigation, the CDC researchers looked at more than 9,600 adolescents ages 12 to 17 years, whose parents completed the National Health Interview Survey. Of these, more than 1,400 had autism or another behavioral or learning disorder.

Table courtesy the CDC, from "Key Findings: Prevalence and Impact of Unhealthy Weight in a National Sample of US Adolescents with Autism and Other Learning and Behavioral Disorders"Parent-reported obesity increased from 13 percent for adolescents without learning or behavioral disabilities to 20 percent for those with any such disability to nearly 32 percent for adolescents with autism. (See table at right.)

Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (AS-ATN) has developed practice guidelines that urge close monitoring of individuals taking antipsychotic medications that can lead to weight gain, says AS-ATN director Dan Coury. These guidelines were developed as part of the AS-ATN’s role as the federally funded Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health. Monitoring is important for detecting and managing excessive weight gain early on, Dr. Coury explains. Regular, enjoyable exercise should be a part of any management plan, he adds.