Autism And Obesity

Autism and Obesity

Research shows that children with autism face a higher risk of obesity, which increases their risk of various chronic health conditions. This is something that needs to be addressed, as obesity threatens all aspects of one’s life, especially their physical and mental wellness.

Although many of the risk factors for children with autism are the same for typically developing children, there are variables that make the autism population more vulnerable. Some of these variables are believed to be biological, whereas others are strictly behavioral.

Children who are obese typically carry that weight into adulthood. That is why experts recommend parents intervene early, as this can improve future outcomes. The goal is to prevent and address obesity in children with autism to improve self-care, independent living, quality of life, and overall health.

Concerned about your child dealing with autism and obesity? Here’s what you need to know.

Does Autism Affect Weight?

Obesity in children, with and without autism, has become a significant health concern. The prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled in the past 20 years. Data from the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey indicates that nearly one-third of children between the ages of 2-19 years are overweight or obese within the general population.

Several studies have found a link between autism and weight issues. The bulk of these studies express concerns surrounding children with autism, as they appear to be at an increased risk of obesity. Significant efforts are underway to treat obesity in the general pediatric population. 

However, little work has specifically focused on children with autism.

One key study, published in Pediatrics, analyzed 5053 children with a confirmed diagnosis of autism. What they found was that of the children age 2 to 17, 33.6% were overweight and 18% were obese. The researchers concluded that the prevalence of unhealthy weight is significantly higher among children with autism compared to the general population.

Another study found that children with autism are up to 41% more likely to develop obesity. Of these children, those at the highest risk are girls, nonwhite children, and older children. Within the study, the prevalence of obesity was 22.2%.

Currently, little is known about the relationship between weight issues and children with autism. 

However, researchers continue to study this link as it is becoming a significant public health issue. Considering approximately 1 in 68 U.S. children have autism, it’s important to discover whether any additional risks play a role. For example, unhealthy eating behaviors and more time spent in sedentary activities. 

There are also concerns surrounding the side effects of psychotropic medications, including increased weight gain.

Whether your child is exceptionally fussy about food or wants to spend the majority of their time in front of a screen, it’s important to address your concerns.

The Pingree Center Can Provide Support

What Causes Weight Gain Among Children with Autism?

Experts believe that the obesity crisis among individuals with autism is likely caused by the underlying biology of autism, and associated behaviors, all of which put people on the spectrum at a higher risk.

At this time, researchers believe that obesity in people with autism differs from the general population. One of the reasons that suggests this is that individuals with autism often start gaining weight at a younger age. As previously mentioned, being averse to new tastes and textures also often leads to unhealthy eating patterns. In addition, for those individuals that live with social and motor impairments, this can lead to limited physical activity.

A 2010 study focused on potential genetic variables, examining individuals with a deletion of 25 genes on chromosome 16. It was found that these individuals are more likely to have autism, a development delay, and suffer from obesity when compared to controls. This “deletion” is known as 16p11.2 and affects 0.5% of individuals with autism. However, 3% of those living with this deletion are obese. What’s interesting is that the opposite scenario was also discovered. When there is duplication on this region of chromosome 16, individuals face an increased risk of extreme thinness.

Parents also often face challenges to address these issues. For example, if your child is nonverbal, having a conversation with them about nutrition isn’t likely to work.

When combined, all these factors create a ‘perfect storm’ for weight gain.

It’s important to work with your child’s therapist and healthcare team to develop a personalized treatment plan — one that targets their barriers and needs.

Recommended reading: Books on Parenting a Child with Autism

Autism and Weight Issues

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report, highlighting high obesity rates among adolescents with learning and behavioral disabilities, with the highest rates among children with autism. There are no current recommendations that address preventative measures among children or adolescents with autism, which is something the CDC would like to address.

The core findings of their study included for Autism and Obesity:

  • Adolescents with autism were 2 times more likely to be obese than those without developmental disabilities.
  • Of the adolescents with autism, 31.8% were obese.
  • Since obesity is high among adolescents with autism, these individuals face added chronic health risks, including depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.

Sadly, a 2015 study found that teens with autism are three times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than their typical peers. This finding was associated with weight and the use of atypical antipsychotics. In a 2016 review that examined the records from over 48,700 children with autism, it was found that higher rates of obesity were associated with hypertension, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and high cholesterol.

Autism Obesity Treatment

Obesity is multi-faceted and complex, making it challenging to manage in children with autism.

The risk of obesity increases with adolescence and a corresponding decline in physical activity. 

Once weight is gained, it’s also harder to lose. That is why it’s important to intervene as soon as possible. Since weight management interventions focus on diet and physical activity, behavior modification techniques can help target these areas.

Recommended reading: Healthy Snacks For Kids With Autism

The Organization for Autism Research published suggestions to reduce obesity through the 

Changing Health in Autism through Nutrition, Getting fit and Expanding variety (CHANGE) program. This program is based on over 10 years of experience developing treatments that address food sensitivities and other dietary concerns in children with autism. The ultimate goal of this program is to provide an innovative approach to weight loss that is flexible. That way, you can address your child’s unique behaviors and interests.

One area that many professionals will often focus on is a child’s family environment. This involves aspects of dietary, sleep, and physical activity patterns. This means that family dynamics are central to childhood obesity risk factors. Research shows that family stress and family cohesion influence the development of obesity in children. For some children, it may be beneficial to get the family more involved in their treatment plan to ensure greater long-term success.

If your child consumes a diet that is calorie-dense, consuming foods that are low in nutrition, they may benefit from the input of a registered dietitian, behavioral psychologist, and occupational therapist. A dietitian can help you and your child develop a food plan they will follow, while an occupational therapist will help address sensory issues that lead to selective eating patterns.

Behavioral approaches are often seen as the gold standard for treating autism, including applied behavior analysis. These approaches can help address your child’s poor eating habits and acceptance of healthy foods.

There are many ways to get your child excited about food and cooking. The goal is to be creative with your child’s food aversions. Here is a practical guide to building cooking skills with your child. Taking these small steps can encourage a healthier lifestyle for your child, especially in terms of their willingness to try new, nutritious foods.

How the Pingree Center Can Help You

The Pingree Center is Utah’s premier center for children with autism. Utilizing applied behavioral analysis, we offer a structured, specialized curriculum. We are proud to have a team of certified 

ABA clinicians, all of whom provide an enriching, fulfilling experience.

We offer educational programs for all ages, providing children with the one-on-one support they need to thrive. Although many of our programs focus on the development of social and academic skills, we have access to the type of resources that could be life-changing for your child’s health and future.

Do you have questions about how we can help your child thrive?

Please call us today to learn more!