My work in Autism was a happy accident. In 2008 I attended a lecture by Elizabeth Strickland - a dietitian specializing in Autism. I was fascinated by the complexity of the condition and the powerful impact that nutrition had on physical complications for children and adults. After graduate school, I had the honor of coordinating research for the Autism Treatment Network (ATN) and the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). My time spent among these experts enriched my practice in so many ways, it only seems fair to share a few tidbits.
What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) describes it as...
Autism can affect someone head to toe, which makes treatment pretty intense. It often takes a village of providers including neurologists to sort through seizures and sleep, psychopharmacologists to assist with behavior management, gastroenterologists to resolve stomach issues, physical therapists / speech therapy / occupational therapists to improve movement and coordination, and behavior therapists to help children navigate and cope with every day life. It's not unheard of for families to have 40 hours of therapy a week. With so many areas of focus, it's common that nutrition falls to the wayside - after working full time, who wants to make meals another event? But the chemistry of food can have tremendous impact on the effectiveness of the therapy.
Nutrition and ASD
There are a number of associated health conditions with autism ranging from neurological to gastrointestinal conditions. The goal of nutrition in autism is to 1.) improve symptoms and 2.) improve quality of life. It's important to understand the root cause of the feeding behavior before trying to intervene. Behavioral vs medical motivators are very different treatments.
Here are a few main areas nutrition impacts:
Sorting through food preferences
I cannot say this enough: Children with autism are still children. Not everything is a "behavior." All too often I hear families explain, "he's picky because he's autistic." Not necessarily. Most children have food preferences. If they learn a way to get their food preferences honored, they are going to stick to it! Children don't eat what they "should", they eat what they enjoy. It may take a little longer and a few extra steps for a child with autism to overcome the sensory barriers and navigate any health challenges, but the process and end result is often the same. The goal is to make eating and exploring food enjoyable for children.
Check out my blog post about picky eating to learn more about making eating enjoyable.
Want to learn more about feeding and autism?
Stay nourished friends!
DISCLAIMER: The information presented here is meant to be for general education. If you want individual guidance to reach your unique health goals, please contact me or a local dietitian directly
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and triathlete staying healthy one bit and bite at a time