Many have made the connection between obesity and autism in recent years. The data paints a telling picture of the connection between being overweight and being on the spectrum, especially in children. The roots of the connection can be chalked up to autism’s underlying biology, treatments, symptoms and associated behaviors. Those factors put people on the spectrum in serious risk of becoming overweight and obese.
Recent studies show that children and teenagers on the spectrum are more than twice as likely to be overweight or obese. This translates to a host of other health problems as children grow and develop. For example, this study revealed that teens with autism are nearly three times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than their neurotypical counterparts. It also demonstrated other obesity related health conditions, like high cholesterol, blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems and hypertension. So, what contributes to the obesity and autism connection?
Behavior, Biology and Social Interaction
Certain behaviors that children on the spectrum exhibit makes gaining weight more likely. For example, as many children on the spectrum thrive with set routines where they can repeat the same habits and experience the same things, many of them refuse to try new foods or activities to the point of tantruming or shutting down.
Additionally, an affinity for electronics and screens can turn a child with autism’s attention away from the natural ways a child can practice physical fitness such as running, playing outside and sports among other things. Some children with autism are also genetically predisposed to obesity or being overweight. With their biology and genetics working against them, it can be difficult for them to lose the weight they are seemingly fated to gain.
Motor impairments and developmental delays are a primary factor in the biological development of a child with autism. This can hinder that individual’s ability to participate in complex games and sports with their neurotypical peers. An extension of this stems from people on the spectrum’s challenges with social interaction. If a child finds themselves having a hard time interacting with peers, they are less likely to engage in sports and other physical activity with other children at recess, in gym class or in extracurricular activities. Challenges with social learning can also make it difficult to learn the rules to games and sports.
One of the things that makes obesity in children with autism unique is that it is also significantly less likely to stop being a problem in adolescence and adulthood. Instead, in many cases, the child continues to gain weight as they grow older, due to not being able to comfortably change the unhealthy habits and routines they developed as children.
Combating Obesity: Making Healthy Choices
There are several ways that obesity in children with autism can be combated. A few of the tips include:
- Educating your child on health and nutrition in terms they understand, using pictures, cooking recipes together and teaching the rules of sports in digestible and easily understandable tidbits.
- Introducing physical activity and healthy eating habits and routines early on, so that the habits continue on through adulthood.
- Adapting sports and physical activity and games to what your child’s ability and interests are.
Above all else, communication is key. Children with autism may not experience the same motivation to be fit brought along by the need for social acceptance that many neurotypical children experience. Instead, education and adaptation of the traditional eat healthy and exercise methodology can work wonders. For more resources and info on the autism spectrum, stay tuned on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and feel free to reach out on our contact page.