Autism & Obesity in Children: Advice for Parents

Experts estimate that more than 3.5 million Americans are now living with an autism spectrum disorder, with an increasing number of new diagnoses each year. The symptoms of autism vary from one person to another, but autistic children must often contend with behavioral issues that can cause problems in daily life. Find out how obesity affects autistic children, and learn more about the steps parents can take to tackle this problem.

Obesity and autism

The issue of obesity and autism can relate to a mother's weight during pregnancy. One study found that pregnant women who are obese are 67 percent more likely to have a child with an autism disorder. What's more, once born, autistic children are more prone to weight problems.

In fact, research shows that around 30 percent of autistic children are obese, compared to a 12 to 24 percent obesity rate in other kids. Some studies also suggest that obesity is a bigger issue in children with severe autism symptoms. Parents of autistic kids must often work harder to control their children's body weight.

Why autistic children sometimes gain weight

While an increasing number of children are obese, autistic kids face some specific challenges.

Autism affects the brain in several ways. One common problem is that the disorder causes problems with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that regulates how much you eat and tells your body when you are full. If this doesn't work, it's easy to overeat, which is a common problem for autistic children.

Autism-related behavioral problems can also lead to obesity. For example, some autistic kids use food as a way to overcome stress and anxiety. They also often develop obsessions. If your child develops an obsession with certain types of food, it's often difficult to break bad eating habits.

Autistic kids can often struggle to cope with social situations, including team sports. Some autistic children may find these situations so stressful that they simply refuse to exercise. In turn, this lack of physical activity can accelerate childhood obesity.

Dietary changes for autistic children

Childhood obesity is a serious medical problem, which can lead to several chronic health conditions. Obese kids can develop type 2 diabetes, liver disease and gallstones. The risk of heart disease and stroke in adulthood also increases for obese childhood. As such, despite the challenges autism presents, parents must take steps to help their children lose weight.

You must control your child's diet. Superficial dietary changes are generally ineffective, and you will need to control every meal at home and school. As such, it's particularly important to consult your child's school, to make sure your child sticks to the diet every day.

Devise around 8 or 10 different balanced meals that are high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Autistic children often cope well with habits and routines, so while you might find this lack of variety dull, your child may find this type of diet easier to live with.

Controlled portion sizes are also crucial, so you must train your child how much he or she should eat. Visual reminders and prompts can help reinforce this idea. For example, you could explain to your child that lunch should contain no more than three handfuls of food. This gives your son or daughter something to check every mealtime.

You will also need to remove junk food from the house. Autistic children will often find the most carefully hidden treats and snacks. Try distracting your child at the times when he or she is more likely to want a snack. Jigsaw puzzles and other games are often an effective way to occupy kids' minds. Failing that, you may need to put a lock on certain cupboard doors!

Exercises for autistic children

Exercise must become a daily routine for autistic children with obesity. A brisk walk twice daily is a good way to start, especially as kids will enjoy this time with you. You may also need to find creative ways to 'gamify' the process. For example, autistic children may walk longer distances if you can find things for them to count as they go along.

There are lots of simple exercises that can help autistic children stay fit. For example, the scramble is a simple move that can develop a child's listening skills and balance, while working up a bit of a sweat. Start on your stomach on the ground, get up on your hands and knees, then stand, jump, clap, drop to the ground and repeat. Your child can do this exercise almost anywhere, and you can add some competitive elements for extra fun and motivation.

It's often worth your time to click here to find out more about how to develop a good exercise program for your child. Autistic children will often pick up these exercises quickly, but it will take persistence on your part to get the desired results.

Obesity in autistic children is a big problem, but it's important to find ways to control your son or daughter's weight. Fortunately, with the right sort of diet and a good exercise routine, you can get your child's weight back down to a healthy level.