Children with autism have many challenges associated with their disabilities, including a higher risk of obesity. The obesity prevalence in these individuals is important for parents, caretakers, and teachers to understand in order to better care for these children and meet their health needs. Additionally, research on how to reduce this occurrence is desperately needed in order to tackle this issue and reduce occurrence. Obesity is not limited to children with developmental disabilities, however, like other physical and educational matters, it may need to be addressed in a different way for those on the autism spectrum.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary obesity is, “a condition that is characterized by excessive accumulation and storage of fat in the body and that in an adult is typically indicated by a body mass index of 30 or greater” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/obesity). There are multiple causes for obesity, but an unhealthy amount of fat in the body is always the problem. No one is immune to obesity, however, some groups are prone to having a higher incidence. Adolescents with developmental disabilities are 1.5 more likely to have obesity than those without and those with autism are even higher than that according to the CDC and Autism Speaks (https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/cdc-study-flags-high-rate-obesity-among-teens-autism). The exact percentages of adolescents with obesity are 13.1% in those without any developmental disability and 20.4 in those with a developmental disability, and more specifically, 31.8% in those with autism. This is a staggering increase in incidence.
The causes of obesity are numerous, but Srinivasan, Pescatello, and Bhat (2014) reduced the primary explanations down to 4 principal issues. These problems include adolescents with autism partaking in less physical activity than peers, consuming poor nutrition and bad dietary habits, medication use and side effects, and metabolic abnormalities (Srinivasan, Pescatello, and Bhat, 2014). Through their research, lowered physical activity was attributed to adolescents with autism being less likely to engage in prolonged physical activity and that they could not grasp the need for it, would not engage in sports with teams due to lack of communication skills, and had a hard time with physical activity due to poor motor skills or coordination (Srinivasan, Pescatello, and Bhat, 2014). Often times, individuals with autism struggle with many physical tasks using coordination, so exercise seems to be no different. Even more upsetting are the potential causes for poor nutrition among these individuals with autism. Reasons such as problems with sensory modulation and gastrointestinal pain often produce poor eating habits and binge eating that higher functioning adolescents with autism use as a coping mechanism for feelings of social isolation and depression (Srinivasan, Pescatello, and Bhat, 2014). The last two reasons for obesity would be accurate for anyone taking medications that slow the metabolism or increase appetite as well as abnormalities in the metabolic system.
There is a lack of empirical research showing how to address the issue of obesity effectively in individuals with autism. As with most individuals struggling with obesity, exercise and education on nutrition and good habits is important. However, when working with individuals on the spectrum some behavioral interventions may be needed when addressing the issue (Srinivasan, Pescatello, and Bhat, 2014). Behavioral intervention can address both eating and exercise habits as well as helping to train parents to be able to handle problem behaviors without giving in to poor eating choices.
The effects of obesity on these individuals are numerous, “including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, depression, fatigue, liver or gallbladder problems, low self-esteem, preoccupation with weight, early maturation and pressure sores” (Rimmer, Yamaki, Lowry, Wang, & Vogel, 2010, p.787). This is the main reason that obesity must be addressed by the child’s caregiver, parent or guardian in order to try to maintain the best health possible.
As stated by Phillips, et al. (2014), “Obesity poses significant chronic health risks within an already vulnerable population of adolescents with DDs” (p.1973). The only logical next step in this unfortunate epidemic is to educate parents, teachers, and doctors of the increase in obesity in these individuals and to work with physicians to try and reduce obesity. Also, more research is needed in order to develop a behavioral or physical education program to decrease fat and increase overall health in adolescents with autism.
If you have a child with autism that is suffering from obesity:
· Talk with your child’s pediatrician to see if the medication they are taking may be effecting their weight and ask if there are any alternatives
· Consult with a Speech therapist or Occupational therapist for sensory issues in order to help the child manage those problems and learn to eat more foods or exercise
· As always, consult with an Board Certified Behavior Analyst for an evaluation and behavioral intervention plan for eating, exercising and help for parents with problems behaviors
CDC Study Flags High Rate of Obesity among Teens with Autism. Retrieved February 11, 2016,
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Phillips, K., Schieve, L., Visser, S., Boulet, S., Sharma, A., Kogan, M., …..Yeargin-allsopp, M.
(2014). Prevalence and impact of unhealthy weight in a national sample of US adolescents with autism and other learning and behavioral disabilities. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 18(8), 1964-75. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.bsu.edu/10.1007/s10995-014-1442-y
Rimmer, J., Yamaki, K., Lowry, B., Wang, E., & Vogel, L. (2010). Obesity and obesity-
related secondary conditions in adolescents with intellectual/developmental disabilities.
Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 54(9), 787-794. doi:10.1111/j.1365-
Srinivasan, S., Pescatello, L., & Bhat, A. (2014). Current perspectives on physical activity and
exercise recommendations for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Physical Therapy, 94(6), 875-89. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.bsu.edu/docview/1533428018?accountid=8483