Atypical Eating Habits May Point Toward Autism Diagnosis, New Study Finds

While what exactly causes autism has yet to be determined, advancements in medical science continue to make it easier for parents to spot signs that their children may be on the spectrum. According to a new research study by Penn State College of Medicine, a child's eating habits may be a sign a child has autism.

The study – which was published in the Research Autism Spectrum Disorders Journal – based its research on data obtained from 2,101 children. Just shy of 1,500 of the children who participated in the study had an official autism diagnosis. During the study, researchers strived to learn more about how the eating behaviors of a neurotypical child varied from a child with autism. The data for the study was collected during standardized parent interviews that were conducted by licensed psychologists.

The research collected from the study determined that 70.4 percent of autistic children have some form of atypical eating habits. These eating habits can include limited food preferences, extreme sensitivity to certain food textures, and/or swallowing chunks of food without properly chewing.

The study also found that 13 percent of children without autism – that had some other type of disorder, such as a speech delay or ADHD – also had similar eating habits. Just 4.8 percent of children who do not have autism or any other disorder displayed the same atypical eating behaviors.

These statistics mean that a child with autism is 15 times more likely to develop unusual eating habits than a child without autism.

"This study provided further evidence that these unusual feeding behaviors are the rule and not the exception for children with autism," said Penn State Children's Hospital Keith Williams in a statement regarding the research.

Susan Mayes, a Penn State psychiatry professor and the lead researcher, noted that the study just confirms how important it is for parents with toddlers to push their pediatrician to screen for autism if they notice unusual eating habits.

Mayes recommends parents to push for screenings as early as 1-year-old, because the earlier the spectrum disorder is diagnosed, the sooner a treatment plan can be created to make life more comfortable for the child. Moreover, research shows early intervention treatment is both effective and beneficial to the child.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports that one in every 59 children in the United States falls somewhere on the spectrum. The CDC also notes the ultimate reason for the increase in autism across the United States is unclear, as it is a very broad spectrum disorder.

While autism does not have a cure, there are steady treatment plans available.