Eating Issues Common in People With Autism

By Cara Murez
HealthDay reporter

TUESDAY, May 4, 2021 (HealthDay News) – While autism and certain eating issues are well established, does gender play a role as well?

Apparently it does, according to Swedish researchers who sought to gain a better understanding of whether being male or female influences eating problems in people with autism.

The study found that autistic traits predicted eating problems, but the link was more pronounced, especially in girls or women. These diet-related issues could increase the risk of social isolation for women with autism, the researchers also found.

“We didn’t study the potential genetic difference between males and females, but we did examine this association between autism and eating problems. And we wanted to know if it was different between women and men, ”said study author Karl Lundin Remnelius, doctoral student at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

The specific dietary issues noted by the women involved social contexts, Remnelius said.

“These articles were, for example, ‘I have trouble eating with friends’ or ‘I have trouble eating at school, at work or in restaurants,'” said Remnelius. “And we actually saw upon closer examination of this subscale that only those social items were reported by women with autism or where the scores were higher.”


The study also found that autistic traits predicted an increase in eating problems. It might not be that autism also causes eating problems, but that certain genetic factors could be responsible for both, Remnelius said.

“We don’t know if this is causal, if autism causes eating problems, or if there might be some other factor that could influence both autism and eating problems. One thing could be that some of the genes that increase the likelihood of someone with autism might also increase the likelihood of a person having eating problems, ”said Remnelius.

“Sometimes you describe it as genetic confusion, so it’s not really autism that’s causing eating problems,” he said. “It’s more that people with autism also kind of have a higher likelihood of having eating problems.”


The study included nearly 200 identical and fraternal twins between the ages of 15 and 33, including 28 people diagnosed with autism, all of whom were part of the Roots of Autism and ADHD Twin Study in Sweden. The study looked at associations across the sample and then within pairs of twins.


Participants reported their feeding problems in a questionnaire that covered feeding problems broadly, said Remnelius. Participants also had neurodevelopmental assessments and researchers gathered information on autistic traits reported by parents.

Feeding problems included selective feeding, sensory sensitivity regarding food, and symptoms of eating disorders.

These social feeding issues could prevent women from having opportunities for social interaction, suggested Remnelius, saying there should be more research on the issue.

The results were presented Monday at the virtual annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research. Such research is considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The study confirms the results seen previously, said Pamela Feliciano, scientific director of SPARK (Simons Powering Autism Research), who was not involved in the study.

Previous research has shown a link between autism or having autistic traits and food selectivity. Cognitive rigidity may be a risk factor for eating disorders, she said.

The idea that there is a gender difference in eating issues is interesting and is a new aspect that needs to be better understood, Feliciano said.


“I think this is becoming important,” she said. “If a child with autism eats only three things, it will be really difficult for that child to integrate into social situations.”

It can also be difficult for families to have experiences when food is so limited, Feliciano said. Therapy can help change this by slowly building a person’s food repertoire.

Many parents of autistic children report selective eating, she noted. Some children will eat fewer than five foods or only foods of a certain color.

“It’s complicated. I think repetitive behavior, a tendency to repetitive behavior, and wanting to do the same thing over and over again play into play, but there is also – and research has shown – that is. a sensory component. ” Feliciano explained. “So if kids have a sensory sensitivity to loud noises and can’t stand it, eating a crunchy food is going to be painful for them.”


More information

The Autism Society is a research organization that provides information on autism.

SOURCES: Karl Lundin Remnelius, doctoral student, Karolinska Institutet and Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden; Pamela Feliciano, PhD, Simons Powering Autism Research (SPARK), New York, International Society for Autism Research virtual annual meeting, May 3, 2021

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