Children with autism struggle to get enough nutrition because they often have feeding problems, which involve aversion to certain foods, strong preferences for very few foods, and rituals or repetitive behaviors around food or mealtimes.
One of the most common ways for parents to ensure their children get enough nutrition is with dietary supplements, like vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids, especially if their children on the autism spectrum refuse to eat enough healthy food.
Adding omega-3 fatty acids may confer some benefits specifically for children with autism, helping to improve memory, attention, and overall physical health. However, the evidence for this is anecdotal, with few research studies proving it. Despite research backing its positive effects on autism, some parents notice important changes in their children’s behavior when they take omega-3 supplements.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a variety of foods like fish and flaxseed. They can also be taken as a dietary supplement, which might be labeled omega-3 or fish oil.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is primarily found in flaxseed, canola, and soybean oils; docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in seafood; and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is also mostly found in seafood like shellfish. These acids support cell membranes all over the body, and they are vital to your health.
Getting enough omega-3 is important for:
- Cardiovascular health.
- Infant health and development.
- Reduced risk of breast and colorectal cancer.
- Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Improved cognitive function.
- Lower risk of macular degeneration and dry eye.
- Reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
Can You Take Too Much?
Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids may also improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), childhood allergies, and cystic fibrosis. Some people are prescribed certain doses of omega-3 fatty acids to manage triglycerides.
Despite all their benefits, taking high doses of omega-3 fatty acids could lead to potential bleeding problems by making the blood thin, and it could also affect immune system function. Other side effects may include:
- Unpleasant taste in the mouth and bad breath.
- Nausea and upset stomach.
- Diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.
- Smelly sweat.
Supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are generally considered healthy, but they are not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so their claims are not often substantiated by science.
Still, about 10% of American adults take omega-3 dietary supplements. Many people have their children take these supplements to improve their overall health.
Childhood Autism Symptoms & Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Research Shows a Tenuous Link
A deficit of omega-3 fatty acids during development in utero may, in some instances, contribute to an increased risk of a child developing autism. Scientists know that a lack of omega-3 fatty acids in a pregnant woman’s diet can cause:
- Changes in myelination in neurons in the brain.
- Neurogenesis and synaptic development.
- Neurotransmitter turnover and brain connectivity.
- Inflammatory reactions.
- Cognitive and behavioral function.
Some parents might assume that if autism is related to a lack of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy, they could give their child this supplement as they get older and support better development in the brain and body. While getting enough omega-3 is important in a child’s development, there is no clear link between the specific developmental disorder of autism and omega-3 deficiency during pregnancy or early childhood.
There are some small studies that suggest that omega-3 dietary supplements can improve behaviors in some children with autism. About 27 trials involving 1,028 children diagnosed with autism found that combining vitamin and mineral supplements, including omega-3 fatty acids, improved several symptoms associated with the condition. These symptoms include communication, socialization, and repetitive behaviors.
Another small study suggested that a combination of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D could ease some behavioral symptoms in children with autism like hyperactivity and irritability. There were 111 children in the study, between the ages of 2 and 8. They participated in this vitamin therapy for 12 months (one year).
Compared to the placebo group, the children with autism who took the vitamin and omega-3 combination showed reduced irritability and hyperactivity. However, the study did not show conclusively how this effect worked.
Behavioral Therapy Is Still the Best Management for Autism Symptoms
The best way to ensure your child gets enough nutrition, including omega-3 fatty acids, in their diet is to encourage them to eat a wide range of healthy food. Since many children with autism experience feeding problems, it is important to find the best combination of behavior therapy and medical treatment to improve their behaviors and broaden their dietary choices.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapists can work with your child to change maladaptive behaviors like food aversions into positive behaviors, such as food acceptance and expanded food preferences. ABA therapists use positive reinforcement to encourage behavioral change, and they can assist you with continuing this process during regular meals.
You should also work with your child’s pediatrician to uncover any underlying gastrointestinal issues. Children with autism often have gastrointestinal problems, and this discomfort may become associated with a food they have eaten. This could lead to not only rejection of that food, but anything like it; tantrums around mealtime; and rejection of a wider range of foods that they used to eat.
While some of these issues require behavioral interventions, addressing the physical reasons behind the discomfort is important. If your child has a healthier digestive system, they will not be as physically uncomfortable and this can greatly improve their behavior.
A Personal Choice
There is inconclusive evidence regarding the effectiveness of using omega-3 supplements to address autism symptoms. Anecdotal evidence suggests it could help to reduce some autism symptoms, but the research is still lacking in this area.
If you’d like to try using omega-3 supplements to improve symptoms of your child’s autism, talk to their pediatrician or other specialists who work with your child. Most often, doctors won’t find the practice detrimental, provided you stay within the dosing guidelines.
It’s doubtful omega-3 supplements will have a significant effect on your child’s symptoms. You should prioritize research-based autism treatments, such as ABA therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. (July 2019). National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Dietary Supplements.
- Should You Be Taking an Omega-3 Supplement? (April 2019). Harvard Medical School.
- Omega-3 Supplementation in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Still Open Question? (July 2016). Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences.
- Vitamins, Omega-3 Supplements May Improve Autism Symptoms. (October 2019). Reuters.
- A Randomized Controlled Trial of Vitamin D and Omega-3 Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Irritability and Hyperactivity Among Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. (March 2019). The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
- Supplementation of Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Improve Hyperactivity, Lethargy, and Stereotypy in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. (October 2017). Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.
- Can a Daily Fish Oil Supplement Help Curb Symptoms of ADHD? (February 2020). ADDitude Magazine.