In a new study, researchers found that unusual eating behaviors may be a sign a child should be screened for autism.
The unusual eating behaviors may include severely limited food preferences, hypersensitivity to food textures or temperatures, and pocketing food without swallowing.
The research was conducted by a team from Penn State College of Medicine.
In the study, the researchers examined the eating behaviors described in parent interviews of more than 2,000 children from two studies.
The team found that atypical eating behaviors were present in 70% of children with autism, which is 15 times more common than in healthy children.
They suggest that these behaviors are present in many 1-year-olds with autism and could signal to doctors and parents that a child may have autism.
If a primary care provider hears about these behaviors from parents, they should consider referring the child for an autism screening.
The earlier autism is diagnosed, the sooner the child can begin treatment with a behavior analyst.
Behavior treatment is most effective if implemented during the preschool years.
It uses a number of interventions, including rewards, to make positive changes in the children’s behavior and teach a range of needed skills.
This therapy can help a variety of individuals with unusual eating behaviors. Identifying and correcting these behaviors can help ensure children are eating a proper diet.
The team also says that there is a distinct difference between worrisome eating behaviors and the typical picky eating habits of young children.
Most children without special needs will slowly add foods to their diets during the course of development, but children with autism spectrum disorders, without intervention, will often remain selective eaters.
For example, many children with autism only eat grain products, like pasta and bread, and chicken nuggets.
Because children with autism have sensory hypersensitivities and dislike change, they may not want to try new foods and will be sensitive to certain textures. They often eat only foods of a particular brand, color or shape.
The team also found that most children with autism who had strange eating behaviors had two or more types—almost a quarter had three or more.
Yet, none of the children with other developmental disorders who did not have autism had three or more.
The researchers suggest this is a common, clinical phenomenon, and they recommend some children for further evaluation.
The lead author of the study is Susan Mayes, professor of psychiatry.
The study is published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.
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