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World Autism Awareness Day 2024: 9 nutrition tips for children with autism to boost their well-being

World Autism Awareness Day 2024: Autism Spectrum Disorder is a development disorder in children which can affect their communication and social skills, cognitive function and learning ability. Considering children with autism may display repetitive behaviours and have interest in selected things, this can also impact the way they eat leading to nutritional deficiencies, eating disorders and digestive issues. It is important to make sure they have a balanced diet that can help in their development and cognitive function. There are also foods that can help autistic children have better control over their moods and behaviour. (Also read | World Autism Awareness Day 2024: 8 effective teaching strategies for children with autism)

World Autism Awareness Day 2024: Proper nutrition plays a crucial role in the overall health and well-being of children, including those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (Unsplash)

Autism refers to a broad range of conditions that can impact nervous system and affects cognitive, emotional, social and physical health of the affected individual. The range and severity of symptoms can vary and not all children with autism face same challenges. Common symptoms of autism include difficulty with communication, social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviours.

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Role of nutrition in autism

“Proper nutrition plays a crucial role in the overall health and well-being of children, including those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Food allergies and intolerances, metabolic disorders, nutritional deficiencies, eating disorders, eating tantrums, picky eating, refusal to eat, food obsessions, hyperactivity, constipation, diarrhoea, difficulty adapting to medication and nutritional status, and other issues affecting the gastrointestinal system (GIS) severely impede nutrition in children with ASD,” says Shruti Keluskar, Cloudnine Groups of Hospitals, Pune, SB Road & Pimple Saudagar.

A well-balanced diet is essential for their overall health and can also help improve behaviour, speech, and cognitive function. One-third of children receiving treatment at the time of ASD diagnosis have had some form of food intervention, as diet has been proposed as a therapeutic approach for ASD symptoms.

Foods that are ideal for autism

According to recent research, while curcumin, probiotics, gluten-free/casein-free, ketogenic diets, and fermentable foods can help people with ASD feel less agitated, consuming sugar, chemicals, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, inorganic processed foods, and difficult-to-digest starches can make symptoms worse.

Other dietary interventions such as the FODMAP (fermentable oligo-di-mono-saccharides and polyols) diet, elimination diets, or specific carbohydrate diets have shown some improvement, but there is limited evidence to support these diets as a therapeutic measure.

Nutrition tips for children with autism

Here are some tips suggested by Shruti Keluskar on how to manage nutrition for autism:

1. Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods: Opt for whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods are rich in essential nutrients that are important for overall health and can help support brain function and mood regulation in children with ASD.

2. Gluten-free casein-free diet: There have been claims that ASD is caused by the effects of gluten and casein on immunological pathways. It has been established that these peptides produce aberrant cytokine production, abnormalities in immunology pathways, and harm to the central nervous system. The GFCF diet can help by reducing allergy reactions, which can influence neurological functions and support brain development and restoration.

3. Inclusion of Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, are crucial for brain development and function. They have been shown to improve focus, attention, and behaviour in children with autism. Omega 3 is also found in flaxseeds and chia seeds. The inclusion of healthy fats is associated with improvements in symptoms such as hyperactivity, concentration, irritability, and aggression.

4. Vitamin D: It plays a key role in immune function, mood regulation, and overall health. Children with autism are at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency due to limited sun exposure or dietary restrictions. Including vitamin D-fortified foods and engaging kids in outdoor activities.

5. Magnesium: It is a mineral that supports relaxation and can help improve sleep quality, reduce anxiety, and calm hyperactivity in autistic children. Foods rich in magnesium include nuts, seeds, whole grains, and leafy green vegetables.

6. B vitamins: B6 and B12 are essential for brain function, energy production, and the regulation of mood. Some studies have shown that B vitamin supplementation can help reduce symptoms of autism. Foods like poultry, eggs, dairy products, and fortified cereals are good sources of B vitamins.

7. Zinc: It is a mineral that plays a role in immune function, sensory processing, and behaviour regulation. Some studies have suggested that children with autism may have lower zinc levels. Zinc-rich foods include red meat, poultry, beans, and nuts.

8. Probiotics: Gut health is closely linked to brain health, and many children with autism experience gastrointestinal issues. Probiotics can help maintain a healthy gut microbiome, improve digestion, and support immune function. Yoghurt, curd and kanji can be part of the diet to improve probiotic intake.

9. Limit processed foods and additives: Processed foods, artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives can potentially worsen symptoms of ASD in some children. Try to minimise these types of foods and opt for more natural, whole-food options instead.

Managing nutrition for autistic kids requires patience, consistency, and attention to their individual needs. Focusing on whole foods, addressing food sensitivities, and providing structure and routine, can help support a child’s overall health and well-being.

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