International Meeting for Autism Research: Can Problem Eating Behaviors in Autism Be Explained by Sensory Subtype

Can Problem Eating Behaviors in Autism Be Explained by Sensory Subtype

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
9:00 AM
A. E. Lane , School of Allied Medical Professions, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
M. Geraghty , Medical Dietetics, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Background: Children with autism are commonly reported to experience eating difficulties. These difficulties range from picky eating to food refusal and disruptive mealtime behaviors. Recent studies have reported that children with autism are at-risk for nutrient deficiencies as a result of these problem behaviors. A number of theories have been proposed regarding the etiology of eating difficulties in autism. Sensory processing difficulties are assumed by many autism practitioners to play a role in problem eating behavior. To date, however, there is limited empirical evidence elucidating this relationship in children with autism.
Objectives:   This study compared the eating behavior of children with autism presenting with different sensory processing subtypes.
Methods: Caregivers of children with autism (autistic disorder or pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified) (n=30) aged between three and eight years participated in the study. Caregivers completed the Short Sensory Profile (SSP) and the Brief Autism Mealtime Behavior Inventory (BAMBI) about their child with autism. Model-based cluster analysis was used to determine the specific sensory processing subtype exhibited by each participant based on their standardized SSP scores. Participants’ eating behavior scores were determined for each of the following categories: limited variety (a pattern of picky, selective eating), food refusal (a pattern of refusal of many foods and/or whole food groups accompanied by disruptive behaviors) and features of autism (a pattern of disruptive mealtime behavior)(Lukens & Linscheid, 2008). Higher scores indicate more problematic eating behavior. ANOVA and correlation analyses were then used to examine differences and associations between sensory processing subtype and eating behavior pattern.
Results: Children with autism in this study presented with five different sensory processing subtypes that aligned with autism-specific sensory subtypes reported previously (Lane, Young et al, 2009). Participants differed in sensory processing according to their levels of taste/smell sensitivity and vestibular/proprioceptive function. Compared to a neurotypical sample provided by the BAMBI authors, our sample exhibited greater tendencies for all three problem eating behaviors. Correlation analysis revealed moderate-strong, significant relationships between parent-reported taste/smell sensitivity and eating behaviors characterized by limited variety (r=.73, p<.05) and food refusal (r=.46, p<.01). One-way ANOVA analyses with post-hoc Tukey tests revealed significant differences between sensory subtypes in patterns of eating difficulties. Specifically, children with the most severe parent-reported taste/smell sensitivity but intact vestibular/proprioceptive function had the highest (most problematic) scores in limited variety (p=0.02). Children with moderate levels of parent-reported taste/smell sensitivity and vestibular/proprioceptive dysfunction had the highest levels of food refusal (p=.006). No significant differences were observed between sensory subtypes in the category of features of autism which equates to general, disruptive mealtime behavior.
Conclusions: Children with autism display predictable patterns of sensory processing dysfunction that are related to some problem eating behaviors. In particular, parent-reported taste/smell sensitivity appears to be discriminative of both limited variety and food refusal eating behavior patterns. Vestibular/proprioceptive dysfunction further distinguishes those who refuse food from those who are picky eaters. Limitations of the study and directions for future research will be discussed.
See more of: Sensory Systems
See more of: Autism Symptoms