Atypical Eating Habits an Early Sign of Autism

Many young children are picky eaters, and it’s not surprising when a child has a limited menu of foods they like to eat. However, when eating habits in young children are extreme, researchers say this could be an early sign of autism. A new study finds that atypical eating habits, such as hypersensitivity to textures and pocketing of food in the mouth rather than swallowing, are common in children with autism.


The study out of the Penn State College of Medicine analyzed parent descriptions of the eating habits of over 2,000 children. Typical children were compared to those with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and other developmental disorders. Atypical eating habits were found to be seven times more common in children with autism than in children with other developmental disorders. These eating habits included things such as very limited food preferences, hypersensitivity to food temperature and texture, and pocketing food without swallowing. Most of the children with autism had two or more atypical eating habits. Nearly 25% of them had three or more. None of the children with other developmental disorders had three or more atypical eating habits.

Unusual eating habits could signal to parents and doctors that a child may have the disorder, researchers say. Doctors who learn of these behaviors should refer children for autism screening. The recognition of atypical eating habits can also help doctors distinguish between signs of autism and other developmental disorders. The earlier autism is diagnosed, the sooner children can receive the treatment and support they need, which can lead to better outcomes. Treatment with a behavioral analyst can be very helpful during the preschool years. Interventions can make positive changes in children’s behavior and help them learn appropriate skills. Early treatment can also help curb some atypical eating habits. This can help ensure that these children receive the appropriate nutrition.

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