A number of researchers have begun to investigate the connection between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and obesity. Last year, researcher Sarabeth Broder-Fingert and colleagues conducted the first large study to investigate obesity in children with ASD. They found that children with ASD were two times more likely to be overweight than their peers and nearly five times more likely to be obese. Since then, two more studies have been published that corroborate Broder-Fingert’s findings.
The first study, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, researched risk factors for obesity in children aged 10 to 17. In the study, families of 45,000 children, including 900 children with ASD, responded to a telephone survey by the U.S. National Survey of Children’s Health. The results showed that 40 percent of children with ASD were overweight or obese, compared to only 30 percent of children without ASD. They found no difference in screen time, physical activity, or sleep problems between overweight children with ASD and children with ASD who were not overweight.
The second study, from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, evaluated the body mass index (BMI) of 11,000 Swedish children aged 9 to 12. Of the cohort, 343 met the criteria for ASD. The results demonstrated that children with ASD were more likely to be extremely thin or extremely heavy, compared to their peers without ASD. Five percent of children with ASD had a “high-extreme” BMI, but only two percent of the controls had the same. Three percent of the children with ASD had a “low-extreme” BMI, compared to only two percent of controls. Children with ASD at either extreme had the most pronounced inflexible or repetitive behaviors.
Obesity in childhood could have long-ranging health effects for people with ASD. Other research has shown that 34 percent of adults with ASD are obese, compared to 27 percent of adults without ASD.
Sarabeth Broder-Fingert calls for more research into why children with ASD are more likely to be obese. “Probably multiple things are all contributing, and when they’re all together at the same time, you really get this increased obesity prevalence. We want to follow kids over time. Are certain kids who are big to begin with continuing to get big, or do they start to get small? We don’t know at this point.”
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