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Young People With Autism More Prone To Obesity


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New research suggests that individuals on the autism spectrum have

New research suggests that individuals on the autism spectrum have “significantly higher odds” of being overweight or obese. (Thinkstock)

Even at young ages, individuals with autism are far more likely to be obese or overweight than their typically-developing peers, a new study finds.

In a review of medical records, researchers found that more than 23 percent of children with autism and 25 percent of those with Asperger’s syndrome were obese. Meanwhile, another 15 percent of kids with autism and 11 percent with Asperger’s were overweight.

That compared to just over 6 percent of typically-developing children who were obese and 11 percent who were overweight.

The findings come from a review of records from patients ages 2 to 20 treated at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and its affiliates between 2008 and 2011.

Researchers identified 2,075 with autism, 901 with Asperger’s and 3,696 typically-developing controls, all of whom had their weight and height recorded during at least one medical visit. These figures were used to calculate each individual’s body mass index.

“We found significant differences emerged at the youngest age category (2 to 5 years) and persisted to the oldest age category,” Sarabeth Broder-Fingert of the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and her colleagues wrote in their findings published in the July-August issue of the journal Academic Pediatrics.

Among those on the spectrum, individuals with co-occurring sleep disorders, public insurance and those at older ages were more likely to be obese or overweight, the study found. Researchers did not spot any association with use of psychiatric medication but said that may be due to limited data on use of such drugs in the medical records they studied.

It’s unclear what is fueling the increased odds of obesity for this population, but researchers said further study should examine the time spent in sedentary activities, access to physical activity, social issues with peers and the use of food as a reward for good behavior as possible culprits.

The findings echo those from a study earlier this year conducted by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that obesity is 50 percent more common in adolescents with developmental disabilities and those with autism face the greatest risk.

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Comments (14 Responses)

  1. Linda Higgins says:

    Of course kids with autism are more prone to obesity. They very often take medications that pack on the pounds. Saying that they didn’t see a correlation makes me suspicious of the study. I know more kids with autism who are on Risperdal and other anti-psychotic medications, and many of those and others are also on anti-depressants for OCD symptoms which generally pack on weight.

  2. Rosella A Alm-Ahearn says:

    It could be due to drugs, but with older adults it is more likely due to the type of behavior intervention used in the 1970s. The “reward’ at that time was a food reward. The better the child did with the task, the more goodies he got. Hence the more calories he put on. Add an intensively hyperactive metabolism that required a lot of food/fuel, and then you build an adult with big muscles overlaid with quite a bit of fat.

  3. rose trigg says:

    I don’t think it is just the meds. Even kids on no meds I notice are overweight. I think alot of people in general but maybe especially people with autism eat to regulate their mood. This could really contribute. Also many if not most people with autism have a higher level of stress ( ridgitiy, insistence on sameness). The stress increases stress hormones ( cortisol, glucocorticoids) all of which increase weight gain. Many of these people also have some food restrictions due to sensory issues .
    Meds definitely increase weight gain but I think its not the whole story.

  4. Tina says:

    I found this article strangely incomplete, because there was no mention of the fact that our kids on the Spectrum that are obese/over-weight have issues with the lympic system not working correctly. Our kids are not getting the “I’m full signal” . This is also the area of the brain that controls emotions (most of these kids will also be prone to meltdowns due to the inability to regulate stress and frustration).
    Parents of kids who are on the Spectrum and are obese need to push to have this information made known among medical personnel, social workers and educators because there has been an increase in parents being reported to CPS for medical neglect due to their children being obese and how seem to continue to gain weight, even when they are under medically supervised diets and even medication for appetite serpressents. I am speaking from experience on this, but we were lucky enough that our boys doctor was up on this medical information and was able to share this info with CPS…

  5. Heidi says:

    My daughter is the opposite. Her food issues (preferences, texture issues, gag reflex) have made me worry about her calorie intake and health. One positive is that she drinks milk all the time….no sodas at all. But she is soooo thin! And I don’t know what to do…

  6. vmgillen says:

    Meds. Meds. Meds. BTW, food is still a primary reinforcer… Let’s also consider opportunities for exercise: few and far between, if we’re talking about people who elope, or with behaviours that lead to exclusion (legal, or not) from gyms, pools, etc). How much was spent on this study?

  7. Jane Shook says:

    Please consider the fixation with foods or particular foods sometimes occurring (possibly related to OCD), related to ASD and sleep disorders as they relate to increased food intake, when developing further studies.

  8. Sally Hayes says:

    Its not just kids with autism but kids with Developmental disabilities in general.

  9. Jan says:

    I agree with vmgillen…there are a lot of different reasons…

  10. mainer says:

    The increased risk of obesity in people with autism/aspergers is almost certainly in large part due to the use of “antipsychotics”. The drugs, especially zyprexa and risperdal, cause rapid weight gain. They also cause brain shrinkage (studies in monkeys and rats have found they cause loss of brain volume, a study in humans in 2011 by a prominent psychiatrist Nancy Andreason, found the same in humans). By blocking dopamine they tend to cause (in varying degrees depending on dose and the individual person’s reaction) apathy, anhedonia, and sedation. The use of these drugs even in non-autistic populations should be reconsidered. In 1978, a randomized controlled trial of thorazine (old antipsychotic) versus placebo in patients with psychosis showed that 62 % of patients randomly assigned to receive the antipsychotic relapsed compared with just 27% of those who received placebo. A similar study was not conducted until last year. Dutch researchers randomized patients with first episode psychosis to either receive “maintenance treatment” (the patient remained on a stable dose of their antipsychotic) or dose reduction or discontinuation of the antipsychotic. The patients were followed for 7 years. Patients who were randomized to the maintenance group had a recovery rate of 17%. Patients who were randomized to the dose reduction/discontinuation group had a recovery rate of 40%. The study was published in JAMA psychiatry. So in addition to obesity, antipsychotics appear be harmful in many other ways that most psychiatrists deny. Read Robert Whitaker’s book Anatomy of an Epidemic for more information on that. Back to the obesity, I think in addition to the medications it’s also likely that some people on the autism spectrum tend to prefer sedentary activities (video games, TV, computer etc) more than neurotypical people, and get much less exercise as a result (although that was never me).

  11. Connie Voll says:

    Food as a reward us the best reinforcement second to pleasurable activities according to the literature.
    What I have observed as a nutritionist is that ABA’s offer excessive food at one time just like the support
    staff and parents do. I had a situation where the BA scheduled sugared orange juice as a reward which increased the insulin production and the client literally demolished the furnishings and furniture in his apartment due to being so out of metabolic balance. Clients need to consume calories every 3-4 hours
    anyhow but the BA, teacher, parent, etc. need to be guided by a qualified nutritionist. A local university
    department is studying whether or not parents were successful following a gluten-free diet for their child…..the problem is that parents do not know what a truly accurate gluten-free diet is but are just
    guessing they know……so how valid is that research going to be without the specifics of offering a more
    nearly accurate nutritionally adequate intake???????????????? We know the increase in autism is
    growing, so why don’t we address recovery and brain development with proper nutrition instead of just
    learning to cope with the condition that is reversible while doctors make a lot of money fooling parents
    about what they are advising. We always have to be aware of the money games that exist……please,
    this is serious. What will we do when the incidence of Autism is 1 in 10? I think we are foolish enough to let this condition just continue to be “coped with” instead of appropriately and scientifically addressed.

  12. Rhonda Delgado says:

    Okay so the study tells those of us who are parents of children on the spectrum (I have a 9 yr old daughter with Asperger’s Syndrome) what we already knew. But I can assure you, at least not in my specific case, it’s not due to a lack of access to physical activities (my daughter loves to ride her bode and does so everyday for several hours a day), it might be dilute to the medications (but there’s little I can do about that since the meds seem to be a vital part of my daughters symptom treatment), it’s not due to socioeconomic status (my annual income is roughly $46,000) and it’s not due to my not watching what she eats or not purchasing healthy food alternatives because I’m VERY aware that she has an eating problem and I never purchase sodas and rarely purchase candy and other sweets). So let me tell you what I see in my child. She uses food to cope! It’s almost like a drug for her. We all know that eating, especially sweet and rich starchy foods, cause endorphins to be released into the brain. Thus, I believe my daughter is addicted to food (primarily sweets and rich foods) because eating them makes her feel good. So how do I fix it when she sneaks extra yogurts, extra fruits, teachers at school give her cake and candy and if we were to all refuse her these things at school?!?! I myself am considered to be obese and have had lap band to assist which had to later have all the saline removed as I was basically becoming malnurished. Therefore, I’m terrified that she will also become obese and it will be an issue she’ll then struggle with for the rest of her life.

  13. Shandi says:

    My son eats healthy, runs the treadmill for a total of 45 minutes a day, is not on any medication, and is still overweight. I don’t know what else to do…nothing works. He loves to run and play, so that combined with the treadmill, and time spent on the bike with his daddy, means that he isn’t just sitting around. We don’t reward with food, so its not that. He has always been big, even the nutritionist that his pediatrician made us see, couldn’t figure out why he gains weight the way he does. We followed her diet to the T, and he still gained weight.

    I have decided that so long as he can carry his weight, it isn’t hindering his activity, or causing shortness of breath, I will just let him be a kid….a very active, but overweight kid :/

  14. Ranjan George says:

    How do I help my year old son with Asperger that is obese at almost 400 lbs, he lives with his mom and aunt who have weight and eating issues. I am very concerned about his health. Please direct me on how to help him with some kind of a program.
    Thank you
    Ranjan George

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