A recent study from Penn State College of Medicine showed that unusual eating behaviors may be a sign a child should be tested for autism.
These unusual eating behaviors include severely limited food preferences, hypersensitivity to food textures or temperatures, and pocketing food without swallowing.
The study is published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. The lead author is Susan Mayes, professor of psychiatry.
The team examined eating behaviors described in parent interviews of more than 2,000 children.
They found that strange eating behaviors appeared in 70% of children with autism, which is 15 times more common than in healthy children.
There is a big 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.
However, 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.
These findings 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.
The team reminds that behavior treatment is most effective if implemented during the preschool years.
It can help to make positive changes in the children’s behavior and teach a range of needed skills.
This therapy can help a variety of people with unusual eating behaviors. Identifying and correcting these behaviors can help ensure children are eating a proper diet.
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