Autism Speaks Science News: UMass Medical School finds mealtime behavior problems in children with autism stressful for families

July 08, 2015

UMass Medical School researchers recommend physicians and clinicians look into the mealtimes of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) after their study found that this population of children has high food selectivity and more mealtime behavior problems, and their parents experience higher levels of stress during mealtimes. The study was featured in an Autism Speaks Science News article July 7.   

“While such findings come as no surprise to families affected by autism, these issues should be on the radar screens of those working with children affected by autism,” the lead author of the study, Carol Curtin, MSW, told Autism Speaks Science News. Curtin is a research assistant professor of Family Medicine & Community Health at UMass Medical School and director of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities programs at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center.

“It’s critical that clinicians and dietitians understand the unique issues that families of children with autism face during mealtimes,” Curtin told Autism Speaks Science News. “(They need) to offer families support in addressing these challenges.”   The study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, involved 53 children with ASD and 58 typically developing children ages 3 to 11. The study found that children with ASD were more likely to have high food selectivity than the typically developing children, and their parents reported more mealtime behavioral problems, more spousal stress, and more influence on what other family members ate. Food selectivity, also commonly referred to as picky eating, was associated with mealtime behavioral issues in both groups of children in the study, but it was higher in children with autism. The researchers believe interventions may reduce mealtime problems.

“Mealtimes have many positive benefits for families, including child well-being, better diet quality, and promoting meaningful participation among all family members, so this is an important issue for providers to address,” Curtin said.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, a unit within UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine, is a national leader in autism research, particularly as it relates to obesity. The Shriver Center is home to the national Healthy Weight Research Network, funded by the Maternal Child Health Bureau, which promotes the understanding of obesity risk factors in children with ASD and other developmental disabilities. The network devises evidence-based solutions for reaching and maintaining healthy weight status for these populations of children.

The Shriver Center also is conducting two nutrition-related research projects that focus on youth with developmental disabilities. The Children's Mealtime Study is examining the eating patterns and mealtime behaviors of children ages 3 to 8 with intellectual disabilities. The Health U program aims to help overweight young people ages 15-22 with intellectual disabilities lose weight through group and individual counseling.