Studies show the presence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a significant predictor of challenging behaviours in children.
A study by McCarthy et al. (2014) found those with ASD had higher levels of challenging behaviours than those without ASD.
The researchers used the Developmental Behaviour Checklist (Einfield & Tonge, 2002) to measure behavioural and emotional disturbance in young people aged 4-18 years with developmental and intellectual disabilities, including ASD. They measured the overall challenging behaviour of children using five subscales including: disruptive/antisocial, self-absorbed, communication disturbance, anxiety and social relating (McCarthy, Underwood, Tsakanikos, Craig, Howlin & Bouras, 2014).
This may indicate that high levels of challenging behaviours in children with ASD may affect the motivations of parents selecting food. For example, a stressful feeding encounter is not likely to encourage a child to eat novel or new foods (Fisher & Birch, 1999).
In fact, studies show that how parents react to their child’s eating behaviours could further influence picky eating behaviours and affect psychological determinants of eating later in life (Van der Horst, 2012). Additionally, behavioural problems in the child were found when the child is a picky eater (Jacobi, Schmitz & Agras, 2008). Marchi and Cohen (1990) found picky eating is related to family conflict, specifically conflict between parents on the management of the child.
Food Sensitivities in Children with ASD
Another trait of ASD includes food sensitivities, which may affect parental food choice motivations.
Past studies investigating children with ASD have found that repetitive eating patterns and food choices can be particular around food texture, colour and packaging (Raiten & Massaro, 1986; Cornish, 1998).
A study by Raiten & Massaro (1986) found that parents of children with ASD had a more positive attitude toward nutrition than did parents of controls. Furthermore, the feeding habits of the children with ASD included in the study, appeared to have little significant impact on the quality of the child’s diet.
Children with ASD can have a rigid pattern of interests and an obsessive desire to cling to routines, which may reflect negatively in food behaviour (Cornish, 2002).
Children with ASD are more likely to experience problems with food compared with typically developing children (Sharp et al, 2013). These problems may include food selectivity (Ahearn, Castine, Nault, & Green, 2001), nutritional intake (Johnson et al, 2014), eating problems including behavioural, sensory and food refusal (Martins, Young, & Robson, 2008), and special diets including gluten and casein free diets (Cornish, 2002).
Many factors influence food decisions, including gender, cultural, social, psychological, biological and environmental (Story, Neumark-Sztainer, & French, 2002).
A study by Furst, Connors, Bisogni, Sobal, and Falk (1996) conceptualized food choices based on personal and social influences, which mould an individual’s values including tastes, costs, convenience and health. Health, sensory appeal and price are generally the highest motivators for food choice, according to a study by Lindeman and Vaananen (2000).
Neurological assessments can be administered by psychologists to assess a child’s behaviour and identify the challenging areas. These problem areas can be the focus of ongoing therapy which can be a more immediate help to parents and the family. Please do not hesitate to contact me for further information regarding behavioural issues in children, along with those children with ASD.
Author: Cassandra Gist, BPsych (Hons), MPsych, MAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist works with clients aged from two years old right through to adulthood. She has a special interest in working with children and their families around the diagnosis and treatment of issues such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist, try online booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.