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October 2007 Issue

Shirley Ekvall, PhD, says nutrition is important in autism treatment.
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Nutritional Shortfalls Can Be Prevented in Autistic Children

Published October 2007

As many as 100 out of every 10,000 children may have autism.

Classified as a “pervasive developmental disorder,” autism is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behaviors.

Impairments in autistic children can range from slight to severe, and in many cases, can lead to problems with completing everyday tasks.

UC nutrition expert Shirley Ekvall, PhD, says simply sitting down to dinner can be a major obstacle for families dealing with an autistic child.

Ekvall, professor in UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences, has studied pediatric nutrition specifically related to children with autism and says incorporating a dietitian into a treatment team is essential for preventing nutritional deficiencies.

She presented data on the topic in Philadelphia at the September Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo sponsored by the American Dietetic Association. 

Ekvall and colleagues at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center evaluated 87 children with autism and gathered demographical data and details about nutritional habits.

The majority of children (58 percent) were aged 3 to 5 and 80 percent were male. Sixty percent were Caucasian and 33 percent African-American.

Of the group, 32 percent took a multivitamin/mineral supplement, and well over half were reported to have delayed self-feeding skills.

“Children with autism often choose to eat the same foods at every meal,” says Ekvall.

“Nearly 70 percent of the children we studied were ‘picky eaters,’ selecting the same foods on a regular basis.”

Across the board, Ekvall says, favorite foods for children with autism include chicken nuggets, candy, french fries, bananas and green beans.

“These choices can supply adequate calories,” says Ekvall, “but meals made up of these items are not nutrient-dense.”

Adding a dietitian to the treatment team, she says, provides additional support and behavioral modification tools necessary to help autistic children obtain the right kind and amount of food.

Ekvall coedited the book “Pediatric Nutrition in Chronic Diseases and Developmental Disorders,” in which she coauthored the chapter on autism with Viviann Nordin, MD, PhD, an autism expert in Lund, Sweden.

The book, which serves as a reference for health professionals and students, includes a self-study with more than 35 continuing education credits for physicians, dietitians and nurses. 

Ekvall was also selected by the American Dietetic Association to be one of three content advisers for the position paper titled “Dietary Guidance for Healthy Children Ages 2–11 Years.”

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