By OTARC Master of Clinical Psychology candidate, Stephanie Mertins and Associate Professor Amanda Richdale
Parents of children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Autism) often report more child behavioural, gastrointestinal and sleep difficulties than do parents of non-autistic children.
While no clear links have been found to explain why these differences exist, some parents, particularly parents of Autistic children, report that they have tried to manage their child’s co-occurring conditions 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 non-autistic children and Autistic children. In addition, we were also interested in examining whether differences in children’s diet across cultures would impact parent-reports of children’s co-occurring conditions. 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 were Autistic, while 58 children were not Autistic. 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 Autistic children more likely to be using such a diet. Nevertheless, parents of non-autistic children and Autistic children did not differ in their belief that diet affected their child’s behaviour. When looking at the food diaries, we found that Autistic children from Bangladesh consumed fewer food additives and less salicylates, amines and glutamate than Australian or American children. Non-autistic 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, Autistic children were more likely to have parent-reported behavioural, gastrointestinal and sleep problems than non-autistic 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.
See also Well-Being in Mothers after their Child’s Recent ASD Diagnosis by Jackie Maya, OTARC 2014 Honours student
Published March 2015