Dietitians for people with autism
What is a dietitian?
Dietitians are health experts specialising in food, nutrition and diet. They provide guidance about diets and nutrition for people who may be affected by a range of health conditions, such as obesity, cancer or heart disease, and certain disabilities or disorders.
Why are dietitians recommended for people with autism?
As some people on the autism spectrum can have difficulty with eating, or can be fastidious eaters, there are a number of professional registered dietitians who have a particular interest in the nutritional needs of children and adults with autism.
Behavioural challenges as well as sensitivities to certain foods, particularly among some children with autism, can make it difficult for parents and carers to ensure they are providing them with a nutritious diet.
For example, people with autism may refuse to eat unless they sit in the same place at the table, eat on the same dishes, use the same tablecloth, and eat the same foods every single day. Just a small change in routine can cause an enormous amount of anxiety or fear in a child or person with autism, and can often result in the refusal to eat.
Researchers at Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine found that children on the autism spectrum are five times more likely to have mealtime outbursts, be more selective about their food, or have ritualistic eating behaviours.
The study also found lower intakes of calcium and protein in children with autism. Calcium is crucial for building strong bones, while adequate protein is important for growth, mental development and health.
This can be why people with autism, or with a child who has autism, find it useful to seek advice from a dietitian, as they can provide solutions for evading some of these common issues.
Autism and diets
Given the well-established relationship between diet, health and wellbeing, it’s natural for people with autism and parents of autistic children to seek out food-based solutions that may improve their child’s health or wellbeing.
One of the most common beliefs amongst parents of children on the autism spectrum is that removing gluten (the protein in wheat, rye and barley) and casein (the protein in milk) from the diet will improve adaptive behaviours. However, medical practitioners warn that these diets can be low in fibre, B vitamins and calcium, which can affect overall health.
There is general agreement, that as many as 50% of children on the autism spectrum have digestive problems , but the reasons for this are not established.
Just like the nature of the autism spectrum, there is no one size fits all approach to autism and diet, so if you have any concerns around your child’s nutrition, it’s best to contact a dietitian and seek professional advice.
The increasing concern about food additives in our general diet are believed by some to influence behaviours. However, at this stage there is insufficient evidence to support these claims.
A dietitian can clarify concerns about food additives such as food dyes and colours, artificial flavourings, preservatives and artificial sweeteners and their role in behavioural symptoms.
Dietitians can also help you to develop natural, wholefood diets that are generally better for your health.
How can a dietitian help?
Generally, a dietitian will initially undertake a consultation with you, or your child or dependant, to understand diet and eating behaviours.
The consultation will identify food aversions that may be promoted by texture, appearance, smell or temperature.
They will also want to learn more about health and lifestyle problems such as constipation and diarrhoea, sleep issues, body weight, and skin conditions such as eczema.
They may then recommend biomedical testing to identify food allergies and sensitivities, gastro-intestinal parasites and viruses or micro-nutrient deficiencies.
After a comprehensive review of a person’s current diet they will often then recommend an individualised diet that provides the right nutritional balance for that person. They can also clarify current research relating to diets such as the Gluten-free casein-free (GFCF) diet, and will provide an objective opinion about the benefits and potential problems that may arise as a result of such diets.
A dietitian will sometimes collaborate with an Occupational Therapist or Speech Pathologist to develop a program which can support a healthy diet and assist with mealtimes. This might include developing a specific mealtime environment that is practical for your family and routines, such as optimal seating positions, table height, or the removal or adjustment of distracting noises, lighting and smells.
Depending on age, children may like to get involved in their own menu planning in conjunction with their dietitian.
How do dietitians provide their services?
After an initial assessment, dietitians will often recommend a personalised course of action that suits you or your child’s needs. This may include keeping a food diary, coming in for one-on-one sessions with the dietitian, or group sessions with you, your family or carers.
Where can I find a dietitian?
Dietitians work across a range of health settings including private dietetic practices, larger multidisciplinary health practices, community health centres, and public and private hospitals. Dietitians also often work in disability facilities or for disability service providers.
What training do dietitians undertake?
Accredited Dietitians have to complete a recognised Bachelor or Masters Level dietetic qualification. This includes completing a minimum of 30 hours per year of continuing professional development
Accredited Dietitians must adhere to the DAA Code of Professional Conduct and Statement of Ethical Practice, and comply with audit requirements.
What does a dietitian cost?
Costs can vary greatly, but as a guide an initial hour and a half consultation with an accredited dietitian in Australia can cost between $290- $440. Subsequent consultations are charged between $64 and $200.
Dietitian consultations are an approved service under the NDIS. For more information about the NDIS and to find out if you are eligible for funding visit our funding page.
For more information visit the Dietitians Association of Australia.