The ultimate nutrition guide for children with autism

The role of nutrition in managing a developmental disorder, like for children with autism, is more important than you think. Here’s all you need to know!
children with diabetes
Inculcate healthy eating habits for children. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Shivani Baijal Updated: 8 Sep 2021, 13:38 pm IST
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Autism is a neuro-biological and a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 160 children. It is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, and verbal and nonverbal communication. Repetitive behavior, difficulty in adapting the changed routine, inability in learning different skills, anxiety, unusual responses to sensory changes, and sleep disorder can be seen in children suffering from autism. It also affects the child’s educational performance.

The characteristics of autism can be detected in early childhood, but the condition is often left without being diagnosed until later years.

children with autism
Take special care of nutritional needs of children with autism. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
How does it impact overall health?

Autism adversely affects the health of a child, especially if they follow unhealthy eating habits. An inclination towards junk food or over-consumption of energy-dense food and sugary stuff leads to weight gain, and further causes metabolic disorders. 

Children with autism suffer from nutrient depletion, due to their behavioral changes and feeding-related issues. Poor nutrition causes risk of developing different metabolic diseases in the later years. Calcium and protein deficiencies can be easily seen in these children, which further affects their cognitive development and physical growth. 

Food allergies can also be seen in children; they could be allergic to seafood, eggs, peanut, gluten, casein, tree nuts, soy and fish. In case of food allergies, certain foods shouldn’t be a part of your diet. A proper meal plan is important for autism children to provide them with nutrition. In case your child is allergic to casein, incorporate almond or soy milk in his/her diet.

children with autism
Be mindful of eating disorders among children with autism. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
The importance of nutrition in autism

Diet and nutrition play an important role in everyone’s life and in each condition. To feed the autistic child is a typical task, which is why they are under the risk of developing multiple nutritional deficiencies. Children with autism generally suffer from eating disorders, food intolerance, food allergies and nutrient deficiencies. There is no ASD specific diet, but based on research, exclusion of some proteins like gluten (wheat protein) and casein (milk protein) works better in some cases. So overall, we can say that nutritional management therapy for these children will vary, symptom to symptom. Some children also experience GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), abdominal distension, bloating, chronic diarrhea, gastric discomforts etc, due to their faulty eating habits. 

Adapting an appropriate diet is necessary to improve a child’s nutritional status. Continuous monitoring of the diet will help you see the effects of that particular diet. Adequate dietary management is required in conditions like obesity, overweight or underweight conditions (due to lack of proper nutrition). Many studies also show the beneficial effect of including omega 3, probiotic and multivitamins in the diet of autism patients. 

Children with autism and seizure disorders can be treated nutritionally by giving them a ketogenic diet (a diet high in fat, moderate protein, and low carbs). A keto diet has some side effects too, so this should be followed under the supervision of a qualified dietitian only.

The parenting guide

Feeding an autistic child can be a challenging condition for parents or caregivers. But having proper awareness, knowledge of nutrition therapies and proper monitoring of treatments can really help you. 

Also Read: Pregnant women, listen up! Prenatal factors are linked to increased risk of autism

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As a parent, you can give your autistic child the best care. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
A few tips for parents:

Firstly, remember that disability sometimes means ability.

Autistic people have special characteristics like following the same routine, which is a good habit. So, from the start, try to make their routine healthy. Set up a schedule for your child — for instance, fix time for meals, study and sleep. Pre- planning will be required, to follow the same routine every day. 

In order to know the food allergies of your child, exclude casein (milk protein) and gluten (wheat protein) from their diet. Casein-free milk like almond  milk and soy milk etc can be used. Similarly, replace gluten food items with sorghum, ragi, amaranth, and millet varieties. That’s because we don’t want to deplete their nutrition by exclusion.

Next, observe the symptoms and behavior the child shows during the exclusion period. Keep a diary to make a note of all these symptoms. This record will help your doctor and dietitian too. After a week of elimination, you can gradually start giving one new food at a time, to see its effect. And can accordingly judge the allergies, in case your child has any.

Implementation of these dietary changes may not be easy for parents, but this is the safest approach to find out the best suitable food for your baby.

As per research, deficiency of folic acid and vitamin D in expectant mothers is one of the reasons for neuro-developmental disorders in children. To prevent this disease, supplementation of these nutrients shouldn’t be neglected. 

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About the Author

Shivani Baijal, Senior Executive Nutritionist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Gurgaon ...Read More

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