Autism & Healthy Eating

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication, behavior and learning. It is frequently diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 7 but may be present during infancy. Autistic children often experience eating difficulties, making proper nutrition a challenge for parents. Some children with autism appear to benefit from a special diet.

Nutritional Needs
Autistic children have the same nutritional needs as their peers. This includes a daily need for fruits, vegetables, milk, protein-rich foods, healthy fats, whole grains, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Children with autism generally need the same number of calories as other children of the same age, although those who spend hours in motion may need more calories while those who sit quietly most of the day may need fewer.

Picky Eating
The nature of autism can cause affected children to avoid foods that aren't their favorite color, foods that are hot or cold, foods with an unpreferred texture or foods with that have an unfavored smell. If severe, this pickiness can lead to malnutrition, but an article titled "Is Picky Eating an Early Sign of Autism?" at reports that food preferences among autistic children generally don't impact their weight or growth.

Special Diets
Some individuals with autism have food sensitivities that worsen their condition, according to the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Disability and Human Development. According to the university, improperly digested gluten and casein cause a chemical response that negatively affects brain function in these individuals. If a child is diagnosed with an inability to properly digest gluten or casein, she may benefit from reducing or eliminating these from her diet. Gluten is found in wheat products and casein is found in milk products.

Seeking Expert Advice
Do not alter your child's diet except under the advice of the child's pediatrician or a medical specialist recommended by your child's pediatrician. A dietitian may be beneficial in helping you understand your child's particular needs and the doctor's specific dietary instructions. Dietitians can provide lists of foods to avoid if your child has a gluten or casein sensitivity.

Autism is not a curable illness, and a change in diet will not cure the disorder, so expectations must be managed for the family's well-being. Make a habit of serving different foods each day so that your child doesn't begin to expect the same foods for each meal. If your child is a picky eater, serve food in a way that one food doesn't touch another and take notice of whether your child prefers foods that are hot, cold or room temperature. Some picky eaters benefit from being allowed to help prepare the food. Keep mealtime pleasant and nonconfrontational so that food is considered pleasurable and sustaining, not a punishment or source of conflict.

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