Autism & Children: A Nutrition Guide

New Delhi (IANSlife) Autism is a neurobiological and a developmental disorder, which affects 1 in 160 children. Characterised by difficulties in social interactions and verbal and non-verbal communication, it also affects the child’s educational performance. Repetitive behaviour, difficulty in adapting to a changed routine, inability in learning different skills, anxiety, unusual responses to sensory changes, and sleep disorder can be seen in children suffering from autism.

How does it impact the overall health?

Autism adversely affects the health of the child especially if they follow unhealthy eating habits. Inclination to junk food or over consumption of energy dense food and sugary things leads to weight gain and further to metabolic disorders. Children with autism suffer mostly of nutrition depletion due to their behavioural changes and feeding related issues. Poor nutrition leads to the risk of developing different metabolic diseases in the later years of their life. Calcium and protein deficiencies can easily be seen in these children, which further affects their cognitive development and physical growth.

Food allergies are also common in children, allergies with sea food, eggs, peanut, gluten, casein, tree nuts, soy and fish are common. In case of a food allergy, the particular item shouldn’t be part of their diet, but their nutritional content must be replaced with some other equally nutrient rich food item. A proper meal plan is very important for a child with autism.

Nutrition in Autism:

Diet and nutrition play an important role in everyone’s life. To feed an autistic child is a difficult 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 excluding some proteins like gluten (wheat protein) and casein (milk protein) works better in some cases.

So overall one can say that nutritional management therapy for these children will vary depending on their symptoms. Some children also experience GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), abdominal distension, bloating, chronic diarrhoea, gastric discomforts etc. due to faulty eating habits. Adapting an appropriate diet is necessary to improve a child’s nutritional status. Continuous monitoring of their diet will help to ease the symptoms. Adequate dietary management is required in conditions like obesity, overweight or underweight (due to lack of proper nutrition). Many studies also shows the benefit of including omega 3, probiotic and multivitamins.

A child with autism and seizure disorder, can be treated better by giving them a ketogenic diet (a diet high in fat, moderate protein, low carbs). A Keto diet has some side effects too so this should be followed under a supervision of qualified dietician only.

Parenting guide:

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

Tips for parents:

Firstly, remember that disability sometimes means ability.

Autistic persons have special characteristics like following the same routine which is a good habit. So from the very beginning try to make their routine healthy. Set up a schedule like fixed time for meal, study and sleep. Pre- planning will be required, to follow same routine every day.

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

Now observe the symptoms and the behaviour of the child during this exclusion period. Keep a diary to note all symptoms. This record will help your doctor and dietician too. After a week of elimination, slowly start re-introducing one food at a time to see its effects. Accordingly judge the allergies of your child.

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

As per the researches deficiency of folic acid and vitamin D in expecting mothers is one of the reason of generation of neurodevelopmental disorders in child. To prevent supplementation of these nutrients shouldn’t be neglected.

Shivani Baijal, Senior Executive Nutritionist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Gurgaon

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