Obesity is a weighty issue for children with autism: but why?


For more than a decade, public health advocates have been concerned by the increasing rates of obesity in both children and adults. In fact, 1 in 6 children in the United States are considered obese. Overweight and obesity are tied to many serious chronic health issues, including heart problems, diabetes, and depression. Only recently have doctors and researchers begun to look at overweight and obesity specifically in children with autism - and they were astonished with what they found. Children with autism are two times more likely to be overweight and 5 times more likely to be obese. After this discovery, the questions came fast and furious: What’s going on? Why are children with autism at such high risk? What are the risk factors? What can be done now to prevent and treat it?

More research is needed, but researchers have identified a few possible factors which may lead to a child or teen with autism gaining excessive amounts of weight. Certain metabolic, hormonal, and genetic factors that are common among people with ASD can lead to excessive weight gain. For older children and teens, certain medications can play a role in being overweight and in excessive weight gain. Rigid preferences around food types (which may be high calorie) and difficulty eating a varied diet can factor into concerns about excessive weight gain. Inadequate physical activity and poor sleep patterns are additional factors which may affect rapid weight gain for children with autism.

“Obesity is emerging as a very important area of research within the autism community,” says Susan E. Levy, MD, MPH, Medical Director at the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  “We need research to fully understand the scope of the problem of obesity in individuals with autism, and what role physical activity and food selectively play in both obesity and interventions to reduce weight and improve overall well-being.”