A research article published in BMC Pediatrics in February 2010 reports on a study regarding the prevalence of obesity in children with autism. They used data collected via a phone survey (2003–2004 National Survey of Children’s Health) of 85,272 children ages 3–17. Of those surveyed, 483 were reported to have autism (parents answered the question: “Has a doctor or health professional ever told you that your child has autism?”). From the information gathered about height and weight of the children, the researchers calculated that 30.4% of the children with autism were also overweight. This is in contrast to the calculated 23.6% of other children in the group who were overweight.
This study is a survey study and was meant to gather information about the population being studied and does not address the factors which may be contributing to the data. The authors of the study do, however, mention the factors that could increase risk of obesity in children with autism including lower activity levels due to physical issues and dietary challenges including food selectivity which is common in children with autism.
I think the most important thing to take from this research study is the general finding that obesity in children ages 3-17 is 23.6%. It seems that there may be factors contributing to the possible increased risk in children with autism, but the recommendations to parents are the same independent of whether or not your child has autism. Children need to be physically active on a daily basis which includes moderately strenuous activity (i.e. running, climbing, etc) and they need to have a nutritious, balanced diet. For children with autism we may need to find ways to increase their physical activity and balance their diet that are different than what we would do for typically developing children, but it is possible and it is necessary. Childhood obesity is a large issue in this country and puts children at risk for type 2 diabetes and other health complications. There’s no time like the present to help your child by putting their health and well-being at the top of the priority list.