Nutrition and Autism: What You Need to Know

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects how a person communicates, interacts, and behaves with others. ASD can also affect how a person relates to food and nutrition. In this blog post, we will explore some of the common challenges and strategies related to nutrition and autism.

Nutrition and Autism: What You Need to Know

Why is nutrition important for people with autism?

Nutrition is important for everyone, but especially for people with autism. Nutrition can affect many aspects of health, development, and behavior, such as:
  • Growth
Children with autism need adequate calories, protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients to support their growth and bone health. Some children with autism may have restricted diets or food preferences that limit their intake of these nutrients. They may also have digestive problems or eating disorders that affect their absorption or metabolism of nutrients. A nutrition specialist can help design a meal plan that meets the individual needs of each child with autism.
  • Brain function
The brain needs various nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, to function properly. These nutrients are involved in the production of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that regulate mood, attention, memory, and learning. 

Some studies have found that children with autism may have lower levels of some of these nutrients in their blood or brain tissue. Supplementing these nutrients may help improve some symptoms of autism, such as hyperactivity, irritability, or social withdrawal. However, more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness and safety of these supplements.
  • Behavior
Nutrition can also influence behavior in people with autism. For example, some children with autism may have food sensitivities or allergies that cause them to react negatively to certain foods. They may experience symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, rashes, or mood swings after eating these foods. Eliminating these foods from their diet may help reduce these reactions and improve their behavior. 

However, this should be done under the guidance of a health care provider to avoid nutritional deficiencies or other complications. Another example is the effect of blood sugar levels on behavior. Some children with autism may have difficulty regulating their blood sugar levels due to irregular eating patterns or high consumption of sugary foods. 

This can cause them to experience mood swings, fatigue, or aggression. Eating balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals can help stabilize their blood sugar levels and improve their behavior.

What are some common nutrition challenges for people with autism?

People with autism may face various nutrition challenges, such as:
  • Food selectivity
This refers to the tendency to eat only a limited number of foods or foods with certain textures, colors, shapes, or temperatures. Food selectivity can be caused by sensory issues, such as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to the taste, smell, or feel of food in the mouth. It can also be caused by behavioral issues, such as rigidity, anxiety, or fear of new foods. Food selectivity can lead to inadequate intake of calories and nutrients, as well as social isolation or conflict during mealtimes.
  • Food rituals
This refers to the tendency to follow strict rules or routines around food and eating. For example, some children with autism may insist on eating only from a specific plate or utensil, eating foods in a certain order or sequence, or eating at a certain time or place. 

Food rituals can be caused by a need for predictability, control, or comfort in an unpredictable world. They can also be caused by obsessive-compulsive tendencies or superstitions around food and eating. Food rituals can interfere with the flexibility and variety of food choices, as well as the enjoyment and social aspects of eating.
  • Special diets
This refers to the tendency to follow specific dietary interventions that claim to improve the symptoms or outcomes of autism. For example, some parents may put their children on gluten-free or casein-free diets (GFCF), which eliminate wheat and dairy products from their diet. 

These diets are based on the theory that some people with autism have difficulty digesting these proteins and that they may trigger an immune response or affect brain function in some way. However, there is no conclusive evidence that these diets are effective or safe for people with autism. In fact, they may cause nutritional deficiencies or other health problems if not done properly.

How can nutrition challenges be addressed for people with autism?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for nutrition challenges in people with autism. Each person has different needs and preferences that should be respected and accommodated. However, some general strategies that may help include:
  • Working with a nutrition specialist
A nutrition specialist can help assess the nutritional status and needs of each person with autism and provide individualized recommendations and guidance on how to meet them. They can also help monitor the progress and outcomes of any dietary interventions and make adjustments as needed.
  • Working with a behavioral specialist
A behavioral specialist can help identify and address the underlying causes and triggers of food-related behaviors and provide strategies and techniques to modify them. They can also help teach new skills and habits around food and eating, such as trying new foods, coping with changes, or expressing preferences.
  • Working with a family and a team
A family and a team can provide support and encouragement to the person with autism and help implement the nutrition and behavioral plans. They can also help create a positive and consistent environment for eating, such as setting a regular schedule, providing a variety of foods, modeling healthy eating, praising efforts, and avoiding pressure or punishment.
  • Working with the person with autism
The person with autism should be involved in the nutrition and behavioral plans as much as possible, depending on their age and ability. They should be given choices and options, as well as opportunities to express their likes and dislikes. They should also be given feedback and rewards for their achievements and improvements.

Nutrition and autism are related in several ways. Nutrition can affect the health, development, and behavior of people with autism, and people with autism may have unique nutrition challenges that require special attention and intervention. 

Working with a nutrition specialist, a behavioral specialist, a family, a team, and the person with autism can help address these challenges and improve the quality of life for people with autism.

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