By OTARC Master of Clinical Psychology candidate, Stephanie Mertins and Associate Professor Amanda Richdale
Parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often report more child behavioural, gastrointestinal and sleep problems than do parents of typically developing (TD) children.
While no clear links have been found to explain why these differences exist, some parents, particularly parents of children with ASD, report that they have tried to manage their child’s co-morbid problems by modifying their child’s diet. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine whether diet was associated with parent-reported behavioural, gastrointestinal or sleep problems in TD children and children with ASD. In addition, we were also interested in examining whether differences in children’s diet across cultures would impact parent-reports of children’s co-morbid problems. Parent-reports were measured online with a series of questionnaires related to these three co-morbid conditions and a three-day food diary. Parents from Australia, the USA and Bangladesh were invited to participate.
Following eight months of advertising, 158 parents of children aged 4 to 11 years completed the study from Australia (145 parents), the USA (23 parents) and Bangladesh (10 parents). From the responses we received, 100 children had ASD, while 58 children were TD. One hundred families also completed at least one day of the food diary.
We found that almost half (46%) of the children were reported to use a special diet at the time of the study, with children with ASD more likely to be using such a diet. Nevertheless, parents of TD children and children with ASD did not differ in their belief that diet affected their child’s behaviour. When looking at the food diaries, we found that children with ASD from Bangladesh consumed fewer food additives and less salicylates, amines and glutamate than Australian or American children. TD Bangladeshi children also consumed less of these compounds than Australian children, however differences were not always significant. While American children tended to consume more additives, salicylates, amines and glutamate than Australian children, this difference was small and was not significant.
As expected, children with ASD were more likely to have parent-reported behavioural, gastrointestinal and sleep problems than TD children. In addition, we found that all children who had increased sleep problems, were also more likely to have behavioural and gastrointestinal problems. However, we did not find any significant associations with children’s parent-reported consumption of food additives and naturally occurring compounds and behavioural, gastrointestinal or sleep problems.
Overall, we found that children from each of the three countries had difficulties with behaviour, gastrointestinal and sleep issues but no clear relationships were found with diet. Further research is needed to understand relationships between behaviour, gut and sleep.
Thank you to all the parents who participated in the online study and who contributed their valuable time and responses. If you are interested in further opportunities to participate in OTARC research please visit http://www.latrobe.edu.au/otarc/participate or contact our Lab Manager Carmela at firstname.lastname@example.org
See also Well-Being in Mothers after their Child’s Recent ASD Diagnosis by Jackie Maya, OTARC 2014 Honours student