Autism and overeating

My youngest boy on the autism spectrum is a twin and is 9 years old. When he and his brother are together no one believes they are twins. It’s not because of hair colour, eyes or even facial features it’s just he is so much taller and bigger than his sibling.

My son looks much older and dresses in 11-year-old clothes and a lot of this is down to his appetite.

He loves to eat, and we always have to keep an eye on what he consumes and limit his portion sizes as overeating is a common issue among children on the autism spectrum.

This is a result of sensory processing challenges, difficulty with social interactions, and limited food preferences which often leads to unhealthy eating habits.

Over the years with the help of dieticians and other medical professionals, we have learned to understand the causes and consequences of overeating which has helped us address this issue with our child but it's an ongoing struggle.

Let's look at some of the main causes of overeating in children with Autism.

The most important is sensory processing challenges. Many children on the spectrum have a heightened or diminished sense of taste, texture, and smell. They may prefer specific foods that have a certain texture or taste, which can lead to a limited diet. The limited range of foods in their diet often lacks the necessary nutrients, which can lead to cravings and overeating. For example, a child who only eats soft and creamy foods may constantly crave sweet or salty snacks, leading to excessive consumption. This can also be a challenge for dental health as many parents can testify getting a child on the autism spectrum to brush their teeth regularly can be a daunting and ongoing challenge.

Another factor that contributes to overeating in children with autism is difficulty with social interactions. Many children on the spectrum struggle to understand and interpret social cues, including hunger and fullness signals during mealtime. They may not be able to recognize when they are full, and thus continue to eat beyond their nutritional needs. Additionally, the pressure to conform to social eating norms can be overwhelming for children with autism, leading to overeating as a coping and comfort mechanism.

A key aspect of Autism is it rarely comes alone and many children on the spectrum struggle with anxiety and stress, which can trigger overeating.

Food, especially high-calorie comfort foods, can provide a sense of emotional relief, temporarily alleviating anxiety and stress. This emotional link to food can lead to a cycle of emotional eating and overeating as a way to cope with emotional discomfort.

Many of us have worried about our children's poor diet and restricted food intake. Many only eat bland foods with a limited number of items consumed. We all want our children to eat and thrive but the consequences of overeating in children with autism can be severe.

Overeating often leads to excessive weight gain and obesity, which can contribute to a range of health problems such as diabetes, chronic constipation, cardiovascular diseases, and joint issues. Moreover, the lack of proper nutrition due to a limited diet can result in nutrient deficiencies, further compromising their overall health and well-being.

To address the issue of overeating in children with autism, a multidimensional approach is necessary. First and foremost, it is important for parents and caregivers to work with healthcare professionals, such as dietitians or nutritionists who specialise in autism, not easy to find sometimes but trust me you need to speak to someone in that field who understands the nuances of autism. They can then help you to develop a healthy and balanced meal plan. This plan should aim to introduce new foods gradually while accommodating for sensory preferences and nutritional needs.

It is also important for parents and caregivers to focus on increasing food acceptance and expanding the child's food repertoire. This can be achieved through various strategies, such as presenting foods in diverse ways (e.g., chopped, pureed, or blended), introducing new foods alongside familiar favourites, and using visual supports, such as pictures and charts, to aid in understanding and acceptance of new food items.

From my experience, it is crucial to address the emotional and psychological aspects of overeating in children with autism. Teaching alternative coping strategies for managing anxiety and stress, such as deep breathing exercises, sensory breaks, or engaging in preferred activities, can help reduce the reliance on food as a source of emotional comfort. Additionally, providing outlets for physical activity and promoting a healthy lifestyle can be beneficial for managing weight and overall well-being.

As parents know, overeating in children with autism is a complex issue that stems from sensory challenges, social difficulties, and emotional factors.

That’s why parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals need to work together to develop a comprehensive approach that addresses the specific needs of each child. By providing a balanced meal plan, expanding food acceptance, and teaching alternative coping strategies, we can all help our children on the autism spectrum to develop healthier eating habits and improve their overall quality of life.

Who knows in a few years my boy's twin may even catch up with him.