Determine your weight in kilograms, and divide that by your height in meters. If the resulting number is 30 or higher, you meet the clinical definition of obesity. If you have autism, an obesity score is likely.
Many people with autism are obese. Often, the problem starts in childhood.
As the years pass and the body adjusts, it grows much more difficult to lose weight. And those excess pounds can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
How Common Is Obesity in Autism?
While obesity rates are rising among everyone, those with autism are more often impacted. People with autism are more likely than their peers to be obese.
Researchers examined this issue in 2019 and discovered adolescents with autism were two times more likely to be obese than their neurotypical peers. Researchers broke obesity rates down by group:
- Of those without disabilities, 13.1% were obese.
- Of those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 17.6% were obese.
- Of those with an intellectual disability, 19.8% were obese.
- Of those with any behavioral development disability, 20.4% were obese.
- Of those with autism, 31.8% were obese.
Some people with autism have hormonal imbalances that contribute to their weight issues. This means it’s easier for them to gain excess weight and harder for them to shed it.
Children with autism aren't the only ones dealing with an obesity problem. About one out of every six American children is obese, researchers say. That issue can lead to chronic health problems.
Risks of Obesity
Obesity presents with various risks for everyone, including autistic individuals. Risks of obesity include the following:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heightened blood pressure
- High LDL cholesterol
- Sleep apnea
- Stroke and other vascular issues
- Liver disease
- Some types of cancer
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Gallbladder disease
- Body pain
- Limited mobility
- Reduced quality of life
Overall, most health problems are worsened by the presence of obesity. If a person has any preexisting conditions, the risks and symptoms of those conditions are heightened by obesity.
Obesity is associated with an increased risk of death. Problems associated with obesity can have a major impact on expected lifespan.
People who are obese are more likely to be on medication for issues related to their obesity, such as diabetes, asthma, or pain. They may experience side effects from these medications, particularly when they are used on a long-term basis.
Obesity is also associated with a decreased quality of life. It leads to limitations in mobility, increased body pain, and poor mental health. This is additionally influenced by society’s stigma toward obese individuals. Many obese people experience depression, anxiety, and loneliness related to their weight.
If a person has autism, these issues are complicated further. They may already experience societal issues related to their developmental disorder. When this is compounded by factors related to their weight, the mental health implications can be complex.
What Causes Obesity in Autism?
Untangling the connection between autism and obesity isn't easy. Experts believe that many different factors collide to change a child's weight, and this often happens early in life. Some children have multiple issues at play, while others have only one or two.
Common issues associated with obesity in children include:
- Co-occurring conditions. People with autism often have other medical issues that alter metabolism, including endocrine disorders and gastrointestinal disorders. These medical problems could change how food moves through the system, how calories are processed, or both. Either could lead to weight gain.
- Parents’ weight. In one study of this issue, researchers found that the body mass index (BMI) of moms with overweight, autistic children was 26.05. Moms with autistic, non-overweight children had a BMI of 24.7. Genetics could lead both mothers and children to obesity, or perhaps family eating habits play a role.
- Parents’ education level. In a separate study, researchers found that parents with low education levels were more likely to have overweight autistic children when compared to those with a higher level of education. Perhaps advanced learning leads to improved food prep techniques, or maybe parents with more education get better jobs, live in better neighborhoods, and have better food options to give their children.
- Autism severity. The more significant the autism symptoms, the higher the obesity risk, researchers say. It's unclear why these two data points intersect, and more work must be done to explain it.
- Medication use. Many people with autism take antipsychotic or mood-stabilizing medications to address irritability, self-injury, or aggression. Some of these prescriptions spark weight gain. Sometimes, alternative medications can work to offset this problem.
- Poor sleep. Long-standing insomnia can alter metabolism and lead to weight gain. Many people with autism can't fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. Their tossing and turning could lead to a slower metabolism and excess weight gain.
How Can You Address Obesity?
Scan through the list of risk factors, and you may see an item or two you can amend. Perhaps your child's bedroom needs blackout curtains for better sleep, for example. But sometimes, the solution a person with autism needs goes deeper than redecorating.
Address obesity in someone with autism by:
- Visiting the doctor. Ask for tests to rule out metabolic disorders. Ensure that medications your child takes aren't contributing to the problem. Describe anything unusual you might see, including unquenchable hunger. Your doctor could create a treatment plan to address core symptoms and ease obesity.
- Asking for a referral. Some doctors aren't comfortable with obesity management. If you don't get the answers you need in a visit to your child's doctor, bring in another expert, such as a dietitian. Don't be afraid to advocate for your child.
- Working with a counselor. Some people with autism are extremely sensitive to changes in routine. They can't accept new meal plans or exercise regimens without help. A counselor can help to incorporate healthy strategies into the person's life without causing added distress or discomfort.
Changes Your Whole Family Can Make
While researchers uncovered a link between autism and obesity, many studies suggested that obese autistic children grew up with parents and peers who also weighed a bit too much. Health risks, such as diabetes or heart disease, aren't exclusive to people with autism. Everyone carrying too much weight could experience lasting harm.
Encourage your entire family to make healthy changes, such as:
- Making dessert truly special. Don't break open the ice cream or cake every day. Make Fridays your treat night, and eliminate sweet treats every other day. Appreciate the natural sweetness of fresh fruit, as you aim to avoid sweets with added sugars.
- Watch your portions. Invest in properly sized plates, bowls, and cups. The days of super-sizing are over. Encourage everyone to take a spoonful of vegetable, protein, and starch. Seconds of vegetables or proteins are allowed, but starches should be considered treats.
- Eat at the table. Make your meals special. Connect with one another as you eat, and savor each bite. Turn off the television or radio during mealtimes. Encourage family members to slow down and appreciate the taste of each bite of food.
- Schedule meals. Determine when meals and snacks take place, and don't allow between-meal snacks. Use visual cues, including "No food" signs, to reinforce that message as needed. While the first week or so on a new eating schedule can be tough, the entire family will adjust in time.
Look for ways to swap out unhealthy family favorites with better options. People with autism don't always accept these diet changes gracefully, but with planning and conversation, it's possible. Try to:
- Entice one bite. Don't expect someone with food sensitivities to eat an entire plate of something new. Ask for just one bite of a new food at each meal.
- Encourage help. Ask the person to assist you with meal preparation. Sometimes, people with autism are more apt to try foods they've grown, prepared, or both.
- Embrace stews and salads. These food options offer great ways to incorporate lots of veggies. Place one new food next to old favorites, and acceptance is more likely. Be open and honest about what you've included. No one likes to feel tricked.
- Ask for feedback. Ask the person to describe new foods to you. Ask for one positive word and one negative. You might find patterns that help you choose an undiscovered favorite for the next meal.
Exercise can also assist with weight loss, and no one has to break an intense sweat to get results. Head into the yard after meals to throw a ball or pick some flowers. Put away the vacuum and sweep the floor instead. Walk up and down the stairs twice instead of just once.
Regular movement also helps to address some other issues associated with autism, such as poor motor skills or problems with balance and coordination. By regularly incorporating sports and exercise into your child’s life, you’ll see improvements in these areas. Add a little exercise into the day, and the results quickly add up.
Don't forget to connect with your child’s doctor. If you've tried all of these steps and still don't see scale numbers moving, ask for help. Obesity is a serious problem, and it's critical to stay engaged until you find the right solution.
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