Unusual Eating Habits as an Early Indicator of Autism


A recent study from investigators at the Penn State College of Medicine found that atypical eating behaviors were present in 70.4% of children with autism.

autistic child with doctor

Results of a recent study suggest that unusual eating behaviors, appearing in children as early as 1 year of age, could be a potential diagnostic indicator for autism and other disorders.

Investigators from the Penn State College of Medicine found that atypical eating behaviors were present in 70% of children with autism, which is 15 times more common than in neurotypical children. They also found increased rates of atypical eating behaviors in children with ADHD, language disorders, and learning disabilities. 

"If a primary care provider hears about these behaviors from parents, they should consider referring the child for an autism screening," said lead investigator Susan Mayes, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine. 

Investigators observed a cohort of 2102 children between the ages of 1 and 18 years old to evaluate the potential association between unusual eating habits and atypical development. Of the 2102, 1462 had autism, 327 had other disorders, and 313 were neurotypical children. 

Disorders included in the other disorders cohort included ADHD, intellectual disability, language disorder and learning disabilities. The mean age of the entire study population was 7.3 years. Investigators assessed participants eating behaviors via the Checklist for Autism Spectrum Disorder, which was based on a standardized parent interview conducted by licensed psychologists. 

Upon analyses, investigators found that atypical eating behaviors were significantly more common among children with autism (70.4%) than in children with other disorders (13.1%) or typical children (4.8%). In children with autism and atypical eating behaviors, the most common behavior was limited food preferences (88%).

Hypersensitivity to food textures (46%), eating only one brand of food (27%), pocketing food without swallowing (19%), and pica (12%) were also common among children with autism. Investigators noted that among children with autism who had atypical eating behaviors, 25% had 3 or more atypical eating behaviors compared to 0% for children with other disorders or typical development.

Pica and pocketed food behaviors were only exhibited among children with autism. Among children with autism and limited food preferences, chicken nuggets and/or grain products were the most preferred food for the majority (92%) of the group.

Within their conclusion, investigators noted that results of the study can suggest atypical eating behaviors could serve as indicators to alert physicians to the possibility of autism or other disorders in children. 

This study, titled “Atypical eating behaviors in children and adolescents with autism, ADHD, other disorders, and typical development,” is published in Science Direct.

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