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Diet-Shaping for Self-Limited Diets in Children With a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

This article was initially presented at the 2016 Annual ASHA Convention, Thursday, November 17, 2016, 4:30-5:30 PM. It is available in video in full on Facebook: Part 1 / Part 2


Robyn Merkel-Walsh MA, CCC-SLP

Lori Overland MS, CCC-SLP/NDT-C

Learner Outcomes:

1. Participants will have an improved understanding of the etiology of a self-limited.

2. Participants will be able to demonstrate understanding of a home-based diet.

3. Participants will be able to comprehend the concept of diet-shaping.

Discussion of Topic:

The CDC (2015) reports, that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) impacts 1 in 68 children in the United States. In “cluster” states such as New Jersey, as many as 1 in 28 boys are affected.

Children with ASD often present with comorbid feeding issues. There is empirical evidence and an overall scientific consensus supporting an association between food selectivity and ASD (Marí-Bauset Zazpe, Mari-Sanchis, Llopis-González & Morales-Suárez-Varela, 2014). Problems with eating often occur before the actual diagnosis of ASD, and clinicians may often be alerted to the disorder when eating problems, nutritional concerns and gastrointestinal problems occur (Beckman & Cole-Clark, 2015).

Studies show that up to seventy percent of children with ASD are selective eaters and up to ninety percent have feeding problems (Volkert & M Vaz, 2010). Children with ASD are significantly more likely to refuse foods based on texture/consistency (77.4% vs 36.2%), taste/smell (49.1% vs 5.2%), mixtures (45.3% vs 25.9%), brand (15.1% vs 1.7%), and shape(11.3% vs 1.7%), (Hubbard, Anderson, Curtin, Must & Bandini,2014). Researchers at Marcus Autism Center and the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of published, peer-reviewed research relating to feeding problems and autism. Examination of dietary nutrients showed significantly lower intake of calcium and protein and a higher number of nutritional deficits overall among children with ASD (Korschun & Edwards, 2013). Feeding challenges in the Speech-language pathologists receive referrals for feeding issues in ASD both before and after diagnosis (Keen. 2008).

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) has the most empirical research in treating ASD to date. Behavior analysis is a scientifically validated approach to understanding behavior and how it is affected by the environment (Lovaas & Smith, 1989). It has been endorsed by a number of state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kincaid, 2003). Research has shown that ABA therapy is effective at increasing appropriate behaviors and decreasing inappropriate behaviors (Kodak & Piazza, 2008). Therefore, it is reasonable to believe the principles on which ABA techniques are based can help with feeding issues (Volkert & M Vaz, 2010). The problem is that behavioral therapies however, do not often take into account the complexity of the sensory-motor system or medical issues, and how they relate to self-limited diets in children with ASD. Behavioral components may be essential in a feeding program; however, they should be implemented in conjunction with a sensory-motor approach to prove the most positive outcomes.

An infant’s first “job” in life is self-regulation and modulating arousal. These hard-wired synergies impact the sensory-motor system and oral-motor development (Overland & Merkel-Walsh, 2013). Many children with autism have significant issues with arousal and self-regulation which drives behavioral responses (Barthels, 2014.) Many children with autism also have qualitative differences in motor skills, especially with posture and alignment. (Teitelbaum, 1998). These differences in motor skills may also impact the motor skills for safely handling food. Therefore, when an individual with autism is referred to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) for self-limited diet, a comprehensive feeding assessment is required, including: review of child’s medical status; gross, fine, and oral-motor development; nutritional status; and sensory processing (Arvedson & Brodsky, 2001). For example, 59 percent of autistic children who were undergoing endoscopy for GI symptoms had carbohydrate digestive abnormalities, compared with only 11 percent in unaffected children undergoing endoscopy for GI symptoms (Beckman & Cole-Clark, 2015). Issues that affect the variety in the diet may not be behavioral. Since the sensory and motor systems cannot be separated (Morris & Klein, 2000), it is very important to task analyze the child’s motor skills and how they relate to feeding before assuming that a self-limited diet is purely behavioral (Beckman & Cole-Clark, 2015; Merkel-Walsh & Overland, 2016).

Sensory processing issues can also contribute to feeding disorders (Twachtman-Reilly, Amaral, & Zebrowski, 2008). Sensory processing refers to the ability to receive messages from the senses, interpret and organize the information in order to turn it in to an appropriate motor or behavioral response. Not all children with sensory processing disorders have autism but more than ¾ or as many as 90% of children with a diagnosis of autism have some degree of sensory processing disorder (Schoen, Miller, Brett-Green & Nielsen, 2009). Children with sensory regulation disorder may not be able to organize themselves for feeding. Those with oral sensory issues may not feel the food in their mouths, or they may be overly sensitive to the feeling of the food in their mouths. They may not feel hunger or satiation. Sensory defensiveness produces a neurochemical reaction of fear that quickly becomes a hardwired automatic response. The nervous system triggers a “fright-flight-fight” response even if it is irrational (Merkel-Walsh & Overland, 2016). In addition, once a behavior is inadvertently reinforced, the behavior will reoccur (Brophy, 2013). Children with autism are at a higher risk for these problems, because many children with autism engage in ritualistic behaviors. Seemingly well-meaning parents and therapists may not realize that by reacting to food refusals they are actually increasing the chance for this behavior to reoccur (Brophy, 2013; Merkel-Walsh & Overland, 2016).

In clinical practice the speech-language pathologist needs to look at how the child with ASD reacts to touch of the extremities, the face, and oral cavity as well as oral habits such as teeth grinding, mouthing objects and eating items other than foods. A diet analysis is needed to assess if the child has intolerances to certain tastes, temperatures and textures. This will establish the child’s home base and provide a starting point for diet expansion. The therapist must look at the underlying oral sensory-motor skills to support safe, effective nutritive feeding (Merkel-Walsh & Overland, 2016).

In conclusion, children with ASD are prone to self-limited diets. In order for a speech and language pathologist to thoroughly assess and treat this disorder, the therapist must be in tune to the sensory-motor system and design a treatment plan based on the home base, and systematically and sequentially via diet- shaping.


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Beckman, D. & Cole-Clark, M. (2015). Diet texture transition for individuals with autism. American Speech Language Hearing Association, Denver, CO. Retrievable: http://www.beckmanoralmotor.com/media/Diet-Texture-Progression-for-Individuals-with-Autism-ASHA.pptx

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Merkel-Walsh, R. & Overland, L.L. (2016). Self-limited diets in children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Oral Motor Institute. Vol 5, Monograph 7. Retrieved from: http://www.oralmotorinstitute.org/mons/v5n1_walsh.html

Morris, S. E., & Klein, M. D. (2000). Pre-feeding skills: A comprehensive resource for mealtime development. San Antonio, TX: Therapy Skill Builders.

Overland, L.F. & Merkel-Walsh, R. (2013). A sensory-motor approach to feeding. Charleston, SC. TalkTools.

Schoen, S., Miller, L.J., Brett-Green, B.A. & Nielsen, D.M. (2009). Physiological and behavioral differences in sensory processing: a comparison of children with autistic spectrum disorder and sensory modulation disorders, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, Vol. 3, Article 29, 1-11

Teitelbaum, P., Teitelbaum, O., Nye, J., Fryman, J.& Mauer, R. (1998). Movement analysis in infancy may be useful for early diagnosis of autism. Psychology, 95:23, 13982-13987

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Volkert, V.M. & M Vaz, P.C. (2010). Recent studies on feeding problems in children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 43 (1), 155-159.

One Response to Diet-Shaping for Self-Limited Diets in Children With a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

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