I hear from parents every day who struggle with feeding their children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). While many if not most parents of children with ASDs face this challenge, picky eating is a pretty common phenomenon throughout the population. So what's the difference? Is there one? Through my search for info, I came across a nice article that presents the findings of a recent research study on this very issue. Here it is, with my thanks to Dr. Bill Yates for taking the time to blog about it.

Eating problems are not a diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Anecdotally, many parents of autistic children report difficulty with mealtime and food selection. A recent study from the University of New Mexico describes the type and extent of eating problems in a group of preschool children with ASD.

The research team surveyed 24 parents of children with ASD and compared them with a group of 24 parents with a typically developing child. The primary measure was an instrument called the Mealtime Survery developed for this study. The measure was constructed to tap into eating difficulties known to those with experience in dealing with ASD children. Subsections in the instrument surveyed early eating history, mealtime environment, child likes and dislikes and parental views about eating.

The study used a matched pair design and made it a little difficult to estimate the prevalence of specific behaviors for ASD compared to typically developing children.

Here the the key findings for preschool children with ASD vs typically developing:

* Parents of ASD children noted concern about feeding by 2 years of age--50% vs 8%
* ASD children were more likely to have a current eating problem--63% vs 21%
* ASD children less likely to eat a variety of foods--12% vs 58%
* ASD children more likely to be described as picky eaters--74% vs 24%
* ASD children more likely to have favorite food textures-- 67% vs 4%
* ASD children more likely to have difficulty eating at sit down restaurant 54% vs 8%
* ASD children more likely to have problems with gagging on food--25% vs 0%

Some of the study findings might be explained by higher rates of ADHD in children with ASD (resisting sitting at the table, difficulty eating in sit down restaurants).

The authors comment some of these differences may relate to sensory processing difficulties in ASD. Specific eating behavior issues "may be secondary to heightened sensitivity to food textures and colors beginning in early childhood".

This study supports incorporating mealtime behaviors into a multidisciplinary approach to the treatment of children with ASD.

Read this article on Dr. Yates' blog here.