Autism and the Need for a Special Diet

February 29, 2016 | In: Autism Resources

If you’re familiar with autism, then you’re probably familiar with the sensory input issues that often come hand-in-hand. More than 75% of people with autism have significant symptoms of sensory processing disorder, which is a neurological condition that occurs when the brain does not adequately process sensory signals. This can often result in irregular responses to the environment. For someone without autism, a blanket may feel soft, warm, and comforting, but for someone with autism, it can feel hot or even feel harsh against the skin.

So while many of us are familiar with autism and the connection to sensory processing disorder, few immediately see the relation it has to a person’s diet. When you eat food, however, you’re using all five senses to process it — touch, taste, smell, feel, and even sound. Maybe to someone who doesn’t have sensory processing issues an egg is silky, smooth, and delicious, but to those who do it’s unbearable to even think about consuming.

According to a recent study, children with autism are two times more likely to be overweight, and almost five times more likely to be obese than their peers who do not have autism.

Why Children With Autism are Prone to Obesity

Before we discuss the what, let’s discuss the why. Why are children who have autism more likely to be overweight? For starters, many children who have autism are described as “picky eaters.” Some of being a picky eater has to do with the sensory sensitivity mentioned earlier. However, it can also do with the fact that children with autism are not as accepting of changes within their routine, meaning there’s no opportunity to get children to try healthier food options.

Due to a lack of resources available, and a lack of understanding involving autism, children with autism are also less likely to join activity groups that would promote physical activity. Fitness classes, afterschool programs, sports — these are all very difficult for children with autism to take part in if those organizing don’t understand how to work with children on the spectrum.

What To Do:

Helping children on the spectrum with weight issues is a complicated subject that carries into different therapy techniques and health and nutritional concerns, so if your child has autism and is struggling with weight issues, talking with their doctor or therapist is the first step we suggest. However, to better prepare for that talk with your physician, here’s what you should consider:

Sleep Schedule

Making sure your child receives not just enough sleep, but quality sleep, is something you can improve. Investigate their mattress. If you can, have them try other mattresses either around your house or in a store and have them tell you what they like best. Maybe they’ve been sleeping on a firm mattress for years when they actually prefer a softer mattress, but no one ever thought to ask. Now’s the time to discuss! Also consider purchasing a weighted blanket, adjusting the lighting in the room, and be sure to ask your child how they think they could sleep better. According to studies, inadequate sleep leads to an increase in hunger.

Daily Activity Routine

Monitor how much time a day your child is really spending with electronics. This means iPad, TV, laptop, gaming consoles — you name it. It can really add up, and it can be time that’s better spent elsewhere. Consider discussing with your therapist the best way to transition your child from electronic time to exercise time. See if there are any local organizations that your child could join. At We Rock the Spectrum, many of our gyms offer fitness or yoga classes that children love.


Does your child find comfort in snacks? There are a lot of hidden calories, carbs, and sugars in snack food, and none of it is really needed. For a week, keep a diary of what your child typically consumes in snacks, and then give it a good analysis! See if any of it can be changed for healthier options, and use this list to discuss with your therapist how to go about introducing new foods into your child’s routine. Be sure to talk to your child as well, and see what it is about the snack foods they like (taste, touch, smell, sight, and even sound wise). Brainstorm other snacks that would match what they like.

Your Habits

This probably goes without saying, but children learn by example. The best way to encourage your child to change their habits might be to begin changing some of your own. Of course, this is always easier said than done, but if you’re someone who could use improvements in one of the three areas discussed above — sleep, activity, snacking — then maybe consider joining your child in camaraderie. Change your routines and become better versions of yourselves!


Want to learn more about the classes offered at We Rock the Spectrum and how we might help? Check out our locations page to find a gym near you!