New Delhi: Atypical eating behaviours may be a sign a child should be screened for autism, according to a new study. Research by Susan Mayes, professor of psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, found that atypical eating behaviours were present in 70 percent of children with autism, which is 15 times more common than in neurotypical children. Atypical eating behaviours may include severely limited food preferences, hypersensitivity to food textures or temperatures, and pocketing food without swallowing.

According to Mayes, these behaviours are present in many one-year-olds with autism and could signal to doctors and parents that a child may have autism. “If a primary care provider hears about these behaviours from parents, they should consider referring the child for an autism screening,” Mayes says.

Mayes says that the earlier autism is diagnosed, the sooner the child can begin treatment with a behaviour analyst. Previous studies have shown applied behaviour analysis to be most effective if implemented during the preschool years. Behaviour analysts use a number of interventions, including rewards, to make positive changes in the children''s behaviour and teach a range of needed skills.

Keith Williams, director of the Feeding Program at Penn State Children''s Hospital, uses this therapy to help a variety of individuals with unusual eating behaviours. He says that identifying and correcting these behaviours can help ensure children are eating a proper diet. “I once treated a child who ate nothing but bacon and drank only iced tea,” Williams says. “Unusual diets like these don't sustain children.”

Williams also notes that there is a distinct difference between worrisome eating behaviours and the typical picky eating habits of young children. He explains that most children without special needs will slowly add foods to their diets during the course of development, but children with autism spectrum disorders, without intervention, will often remain selective eaters.

“We see children who continue to eat baby food or who won''t try different textures,” Williams says. “We even see children who fail to transition from bottle feeding.”

Mayes says that many children with autism eat a narrow diet consisting primarily of grain products, like pasta and bread, and chicken nuggets. She says that because children with autism have sensory hypersensitivities and dislike change, they may not want to try new foods and will be sensitive to certain textures. They often eat only foods of a particular brand, colour, or shape.

-From Our Bureau

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