Obesity and Autism
Dr Shelley Hyman
Childhood overweight and obesity has been an ongoing serious issues resulting in substantial risks such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension, just to name a few. It can also lead to premature death if they continue to be obesity/overweight in adulthood.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has also been increasing in prevalence and research has been undertaken to look at the association between obesity and overweight in children with ASD.
A number of ASD symptoms have been associated with weight problems for example children with ASD may not participate in meal meals or physical activities with other children due to their social impairments and lack of motivation.
Also selective eating has been seen to be a restrictive/repetitive behaviour pattern which is common in children with ASD as they tend to have a high intake of low-nutrition, energy-dense foods. Those with a more depressive or withdrawn subtype of ASD may be less likely to participate in healthy physical activities or social eating patterns.
A study by Zuckerman et al. (2014) explored the prevalence of overweight and obesity in children with ASD.
They measured the child’s body mass index (BMI) and looked at their socio-demographic characteristics eg gender, age, ethnicity, parent’s education as well as what characteristics of ASD they have, their ASD treatments and whether they had any ASD comorbidities. They found that 18.1% of children with ASD were overweight and 17% were obese.
This means 35.1% of children in total were at an unhealthy weight suggesting that obesity may be affecting children with ASD particularly severely. Zuckerman et al. (2014) also found associations with sleep problems as obese children with ASD were more likely to have sleep-disorder breathing, daytime sleepiness and total sleep disturbance.
Sleeping problems in general are highly prevalent in children with ASD however being obese as well increases the prevalence even higher.
Overall, this study suggests that there should be a stronger focus on unique barriers to the health weight of children with ASD as it may be important for their long-term health outcomes.
Also paying more attention to sleep and mood disorders among overweight and obese children with ASD could be important. If you improved treatment of weight in children with ASD, it might also reduce problematic ASD features such as sleep and affective functioning. This includes more physical activity, less screen time, and a more structured family meal time.
- Zuckerman, K. E., Hill, A. P., Guion, K., Voltolina, L., & Fombonne, E. (2014). Overweight and obesity: prevalence and correlates in a large clinical sample of children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 44, 1708-1719.