April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects not only children but as they grow into adults as well. Individuals with ASD typically have behavioral issues making it difficult to sit still for a long period of time and have sensory sensitivities to smell, taste, feeling, and sounds. These characteristics make it difficult for children and adults alike to get the proper nutrition they need. I remember working with a child on the autistic spectrum who stated “I just want to chew on a bone like a dog”. The food at the facility was not the best quality and very little crunchy or hard foods were served. As a result, it was difficult to get him to eat a meal most days. Two of the biggest obstacles in nutrition are sitting at the table for a meal and aversions to food textures when it comes to ASD.
In severe cases when an individual has an aversion to food textures, it can be difficult to make sure they are receiving adequate nutrition leading to multiple nutrient deficiencies. Depending on the severity of dietary aversions, a multivitamin may be recommended until a balanced diet can be achieved. However, this can pose another difficult situation involving texture. There are many types of multivitamins from capsules to chewables to shakes allowing for many texture options in improving nutritional well being.
Other behaviors such as eating routines and sensitivity to noise can make it difficult for individuals to consume a balanced diet. Some require being seated in the same position of the table with the same eating utensils and others are not able to eat in a noisy cafeteria but rather in a quieter environment. Not following these routines can lead to tantrums and refusal to eat meals.
Oftentimes those with ASD have digestive problems such as constipation, stomach upset, or vomiting. If a child associates a food item which they consumed at the time of these symptoms, they may try to avoid that food. If this is the case, it’s important to find an alternative source of that nutrient. For example, if an individual is avoiding milk and milk products, try getting the calcium from green leafy vegetables and vitamin D from eggs and mushrooms. Research is still pending on whether or not digestive problems are a symptom of ASD. You can also try blending cooked carrots into a smoothie or pasta sauce to mask the taste but still get those valuable nutrients in.
Some with ASD follow a gluten-free (wheat protein) and/or caesin-free (milk protein) diets to help alleviate symptoms. However, these diets are not backed by research as a primary diet for these individuals.1 A diet high in refined products is what has been shown in studies to be a bigger culprit. Highly refined products such as cakes, cookies, white bread, and many others, can contain artificial colors, monosodium glutamate, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and preservatives have been linked to hyperactivity, headaches, gastrointestinal upset, or mood changes in non-ASD individuals.2
Adding an omega-3 fatty acid supplement has been shown to be beneficial to the ASD patient by decreasing anxiety and aggression, improving attention spans, and decreased hyperactivity and impulsivity.2 Although other studies show this is not the case.3 With the conflicting information, more research needs to be conducted to determine if omega-3 fatty acids should be included as a treatment of symptoms for individuals with ASD.
A registered dietitian can help create an elimination diet safely for individuals with ASD to determine if limiting or avoiding certain foods can be beneficial to their mental and physical health. It is not advised to do it on your own as it could lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Want to know more about Autism Spectrum Disorder and nutrition’s role? Visit these sources below:
2 Today’s Dietitian. January 2013. “Autism Spectrum Disorder — Research Suggests Good Nutrition May Manage Symptoms” http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/010713p46.shtml
Eating for Autism by Elizabeth Strickland, MS, RD, LD. http://www.asdpuzzle.com/eating-for-autism/