Autism & Children: Expert Shares Nutrition Guide & Tips For Parents

by | October 4, 2021, 17:58 IST

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What is autism? 
It’s a neurobiological and developmental disorder that affects one in 160 children. It is characterized by difficulties in social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication. Repetitive behaviour, difficulty in adapting to changed routines, 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. Characteristics of autism can be detected in early childhood, but they are often left undiagnosed till later years of age. How does it impact the overall health? Shivani Baijal, Senior Executive Nutritionist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Gurgaon, says that it adversely affects the health of the child especially if they follow unhealthy eating habits. She gives more details on how to counter the lack of nutrition that is a result of autistic behaviour.

Adherence towards junk foods or overconsumption of energy-dense food and sugary things leads to weight gain and further to metabolic disorders. Children with autism suffer mostly from nutrients depletion due to their behavioural changes and feeding-related issues. Poor nutrition causes a risk of developing different metabolic diseases in the later year of life. 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, common known allergies are with eggs, peanut, gluten, seafood, casein, tree nuts, soy and fish. In case of a food allergy, that particular food shouldn’t be part of the diet but its nutritional content must be replaced with another equally nutrient-rich food item. So a proper meal plan is very important for autistic children to give them good nutrition. If the child is allergic to casein then incorporate almond or soy milk in his/her diet.

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Nutrition In Autism

Diet and nutrition play an important role in everyone’s life and in each condition. Feeding an autistic child can be a difficult task, which is why they are at 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 nutritional management therapy for these children will vary from symptom to symptom.

Some children also experience GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), abdominal distension, bloating, chronic diarrhoea, gastric discomforts etc. due to their eating habits. Adopting an appropriate diet is necessary to improve a child’s nutritional status. Continuous monitoring of the diet will help to see the effects of that particular diet. Adequate dietary management is required in conditions like obesity, overweight or underweight (due to lack of proper nutrition). Many studies also show the beneficial effect of including omega 3, probiotics and multivitamins in the diet of an autistic patient. 
A child with autism and seizure disorder can be treated nutritionally better by giving them a ketogenic diet (a diet high in fat, moderate protein, low carbs). The Keto diet has some side effects too so this should be followed under the supervision of a qualified dietician only.

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Parenting Guide

Feeding an autistic child can be challenging for parents or caregivers. But awareness, knowledge of nutrition therapies and proper monitoring of treatments can really help you. Here are some tips for parents:

  • Firstly, remember that disability sometimes means ability.
  • An autistic person has specific habits, like following the same routine every day. So try to set a healthy routine for them. Set up a schedule for your children, like a fixed time for meals, study and sleep. Pre-planning will be required to follow the same routine every day.
  • Learn about the food allergies of your child. Exclude casein (milk protein) and gluten (wheat protein) from their diet. Give them casein-free milk, like almond milk, soy milk etc. Similarly, replace gluten-containing food items with sorghum, ragi, amaranth, and millet varieties. 
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  • Now observe the symptoms and behaviour the child shows during the exclusion period. And keep a diary to make a note of all these symptoms. This record will help your doctor and dietician too. After a week of elimination, slowly start giving one new food at a time to see its effects. And accordingly judge the allergies of your child.
  • Implementation of these dietary changes may not be easy for parents, but believe that 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 expecting mothers can be a reason for neurodevelopmental disorders in children. To prevent this, speak to a doctor and take supplements as needed.
Also Read: Understanding Autism And Recognising Signs For Timely Intervention
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