It seems like common sense that a well nourished child is a happier child. Many parents have noticed moody or cranky behavior in their young children before meal time or after school when they arrive home hungry. For an Autistic child, however, who may not be able to accurately communicate his or her needs, this hunger may go unnoticed. Or they may not want to eat and may have many food aversions. For these reasons, integrating nutrition therapy into treatment for children with autism is critical.
In many cases, nutrition is not an integral part of overall therapy at diagnosis. Yet many parents who eventually seek out this information on their own, are getting nutrition information from questionable sources. Some parents may not take nutrition therapy into consideration at all.
Autism is complex and involves a spectrum of challenging behaviors, so it is natural for both parents and caregivers to initially focus directly on controlling those behaviors. In many cases, the health care team includes a physician, occupational therapist, speech therapist and behavior therapist; but does not include a registered dietitian to provide nutrition therapy. What is interesting is that almost all autistic children have nutritional deficiencies, food intolerance, or gastrointestinal disorders that often are not thoroughly addressed. While studies involving the significance of the effect nutrition status has in the management of autism are preliminary, there is good reason to consider filling this gap in treatment.
The goal of nutrition therapy in autism is to support the structure and function of the child’s brain and body to perform at their optimal level and to maximize the child’s brain function so that the response to other treatment is enhanced. Proper nutrition therapy should include a comprehensive nutrition assessment and also address feeding problems, any gastrointestinal problems, or need for vitamin and mineral supplementation.
Imagine a child who has difficulty communicating his or her needs, feeling uncomfortable every time he eats due to unknown food sensitivities or intolerance. This sends a negative message to avoid those foods or avoid eating all together. Children with food allergies are at higher risk for nutrition-related problems and decreased growth, but children with autism are more negatively affected due to their problems with sensory integration dysfunction.