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Calls to Action

Seeking solutions, study explores autism-obesity link

Finds increase in obesity rate is highest in 2 to 5 year olds with autism, also elevated in teens and in association with sleep and mood problems
November 02, 2015

A large, new study on the association between autism and obesity finds that the tendency toward unhealthy weight gain starts surprisingly early.

Of the 5,053 children with autism in the study, nearly a third (32 percent) of the 2 to 5 year olds were overweight, compared to less than a quarter (23 percent) of 2 to 5 year olds in the general population.

Sixteen percent of the 2 to 5 year olds with autism were medically obese, compared to 10 percent of 2 to 5 year olds in the general population.

The investigators also found lesser but significant increases in obesity rates among teens with autism and among children whose autism was complicated by sleep and mood problems, the latter including depression and anxiety.

The study, by researchers in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN), appears today in Pediatrics. It was supported through the ATN’s federally funded role as the Autism Treatment Network for Physical Health (AIR-P). The study participants were children whose parents had enrolled them in the voluntary ATN Patient Registry.

New insights focus call for action
“These new findings are important for showing that obesity and unhealthy weight start early among children with autism,” says developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. Dr. Wang likewise highlights the importance of seeing the association between obesity and the sleep and mood problems that commonly co-occur with autism.

“We need to make sure that obesity and unhealthy weight gain are recognized and addressed whenever they occur in children with autism spectrum disorder,” he emphasizes. “The complex, whole-body nature of autism clearly demands that this be done with multi-pronged and coordinated treatment approach such as that provided at our ATN centers.”

Investigating longstanding concerns
Families and physicians have long raised the problem of weight gain and obesity among children and teens who have autism. Significant weight gain is a common side effect of behavior-calming medications such as risperidone, which are given to many children and teens severely affected by autism. Along these lines, the new study found that the likelihood of being overweight or obese increased with the number of psychoactive medicines a child or teen was taking. (Some children were taking as many as five.)

In addition, some have proposed that autism’s link to obesity may stem, in part, from the lack of physical activity that can accompany social isolation. The classic example is the child who stays at home playing video games rather than participating in group play or sports. The new study didn’t explore this issue because its information was drawn from medical records that didn’t include comprehensive information on diet and daily physical activity.

The authors of the study included Alison Presmanes, Katharine Zuckerman and Eric Fombonne, of Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland.

The Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration funds the AIR-P through a cooperative agreement with Massachusetts General Hospital.

The AIR-P continues to fund research into the autism-obesity link with the aim of developing solutions that enhance health and quality of life. Read more about this research here. Read about all the ATN/AIR-P ongoing research projects here.

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