Quinn on Nutrition: Nutritional tips that can be beneficial to autistic children

February 15, 2016

When I heard that Temple Grandin was speaking an hour away, I jumped into my pickup and made the trip. Grandin is a hero in these parts and elsewhere ó a well-known animal behavior professor at Colorado State University (my alma mater) and an advocate for autistic populations.

Grandin knows first hand about autism; she was diagnosed as a young child. Autism is really a spectrum of neurodevelopment disorders related to changes in brain development, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Communication difficulties and awkward social interactions that show up at an early age are characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

"I didnít talk until I was four years old," Grandin told her standing room only audience. Yet as an adult, she earned a degree in psychology plus masterís and doctorate degrees in animal science. Today she is a noted speaker and author and the subject of the 2010 award winning film, "Temple Grandin."

What role does nutrition play in ASD? No one knows for sure. Genetic as well as environmental factors (which includes nutrition) appear to be involved in the development of autism, say researchers

Whatever the insult, it may start as early as pregnancy, according to a recent study at Boston Medical Center. Researchers there found that women who were obese before pregnancy and developed diabetes during their pregnancy ó a condition called gestational diabetes ó were at higher risk of having children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Grandin doesnít treat her autism as a disorder, however. "People think in different ways," she explained. "Iím a visual thinker. I think in pictures. Donít get hung up on the diagnosis of autism."

And she gives much of the credit for her ability to function in the world to her mother who expected her to adhere to certain rules of behavior. "Itís OK to be eccentric," she said, "but you canít be a slob. Mother knew how to push meÖyou gotta stretch these kids." 

Children with ASD need to be told clearly what they need to know, Grandin emphasized. "Donít be vague; expect them to do what they can do." 

Children with ASD also need a balanced healthful diet to help them learn, manage emotions and process information, according the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Yet these kids are often sensitive to certain tastes, colors, smells and textures. Try these strategies, suggests registered dietitian Joan Guthrie Medlen: 

óIntroduce new foods in a low pressure way. And donít fret if the child still refuses it. The goal is to help your chid become familiar with new foods over time.

óMake meals predictable. Routine meal times help reduce stress.  

óSeek professional guidance before trying overly restrictive diets. Research is still lacking, for example, on the effectiveness of gluten- and casein-free diets for children with ASD. 

"Get them out into the world," Grandin concluded. "Limit TV to one hour a day. We absolutely cannot have recluses with video games in their bedrooms."

Come to think of it, this is good advice for all children. Thank you, Dr. Grandin.




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