Children on the autistic spectrum may be fussy eaters but do not appear to suffer nutritionally

Problems with eating among children with autism can emerge in infancy and become more pronounced with age.

Researchers at the University of Bristol collected data on the eating habits of nearly 13,000 children born in southwest England in 1991-92. Children were tracked from birth, and their parents filled out questionnaires about their youngsters' eating habits. About 80 children were later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Parents of these children were more likely to report their children had feeding difficulties between 15 months and 54 months, including being "very difficult to feed," "very choosy," or eating non-food objects, a disorder called pica.

For example, parents whose children were later diagnosed with autism reported that at 6 months of age their children had later acceptance of solid foods and took longer to eat than children without the disorder. As children reached 15 months, about 8% of parents reported their children were "very difficult to feed," compared to about 3% of kids without autism.

For children between the ages of 4 and 5, about 26% of parents said their autistic children were very difficult to feed, compared to 10% of youngsters without the disorder.

Autistic children were also pickier eaters. At 15 months old, 9.5% of parents considered their children "very choosy," compared to 5.4% of parents of kids without autism. Between 4 and 5 years old, 37.5 percent of parents of autistic children said their child was "very choosy," compared to about 14% of the parents of other children.

Yet despite the challenges parents may face in getting their autistic children to eat a balanced diet, researchers found no differences in the height, weight or body mass index (BMI) of kids with autism compared to their non-autistic peers at age 7. Autistic children ate fewer vegetables, salads and fresh fruit than other children, but they also consumed fewer sweets and soda.

And an analysis of reported food intake showed autistic children and non-autistic children consumed similar amounts of calories, fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

Aside from small differences in levels of vitamins C and D, autistic and non-autistic children were getting similar amounts of important nutrients. Autistic children's levels of hemoglobin, or iron, in the blood were slightly lower, but not enough to be statistically significant.

The study is published in the July 19 online issue of Pediatrics.
Pauline Emmett, Ph.D., nutritionist, University of Bristol, Bristol, England; Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer, Autism Speaks, New York, N.Y.; Pediatrics, August 2010

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First Published in July 2010

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