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Research conducted by Susan Mayes, a professor of psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, found that atypical eating behaviors were present in 70% of autistic children, which is 15 times more common than in neurotypic children.
Atypical dietary behaviors may include extremely limited dietary preferences, hypersensitivity to textures or food temperatures and pockets of food without swallowing.
According to Mayes, these behaviors are present in many children aged one year with autism and could indicate to doctors and parents that a child may have autism.
"If a primary care provider hears about these behaviors from their parents, they should consider asking the child to be screened for autism," says Mayes.
More than tough eaters
Mayes says that the sooner autism is diagnosed, the sooner the child will be able to start treatment with a behavioral analyst. Previous studies have shown that applied behavioral analysis is more effective if implemented during the preschool years. Behavior analysts use a number of interventions, including rewards, to make positive changes in children's behavior and to teach a range of necessary skills.
"I already cared for a child who ate only bacon and drank only iced tea ... Unusual diets like these do not support children."
Keith Williams, diet program director at Penn State Children's Hospital, uses this therapy to help people with unusual eating habits. He says that identifying and correcting these behaviors can help ensure that children eat well.
"I've already looked after a child who ate only bacon and drank only iced tea," Williams says. "Unusual diets like these do not support children."
Williams also notes that there is a clear difference between the disturbing eating behaviors and the dietary habits that characterize young children. He explains that most children without special needs slowly add foods to their diet during their development, but that children with autism spectrum disorders, without intervention, will often remain selective consumers.
"We see children who continue to eat baby food or do not try different textures," says Williams. "We even see children who fail to go from bottle-feeding to breastfeeding."
Mayes says that many children with autism eat in a narrow way, mainly made from grain products, such as pasta and bread, and chicken nuggets. She says that because children with autism have sensory sensitivities and do not like change, they may not want to try new foods and will be sensitive to certain textures. They often eat only foods of a particular brand, color or shape.
Warning sign of autism?
Research also shows that most autistic children with atypical dietary patterns had two or more types - almost a quarter had three or more types. Yet, none of the children with another developmental disorder who did not have autism had three or more. According to Williams, this is a common clinical phenomenon - and this has led him and his colleagues to recommend children for further evaluation.
"When we are evaluating young children with multiple eating problems, we start to wonder if these kids might also be diagnosed with autism," says Williams. "In many cases, they finally receive this diagnosis."
The researchers evaluated the eating behaviors described in interviews with parents of more than 2,000 children from two studies. They studied the difference in frequency of unusual eating behaviors between typical children and those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disorders.
According to Williams, the study data show that atypical eating behaviors can help the diagnosis distinguish autism from other disorders. Although children in both groups have unusual dietary habits, they are seven times more common in autism than in other disorders, according to the study data.
"This study provided further evidence that these unusual eating behaviors are the rule and not the exception for autistic children," says Williams.
The search appears in Research on autism spectrum disorders.
Hana Zickgraf from the University of Chicago also contributed to this research. The authors did not receive any funding to conduct this study and declared no conflict of interest.
Source: Penn State