Young children with developmental disorders, including autism, are at substantially greater risk of being overweight or obese than the general population of children the same ages, according to a new study from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson University, and five other research centers.
The study included nearly 2,500 children between 2 and 5 years old – an age group that can present a valuable window of opportunity for early obesity prevention. The research findings were published this month in the Journal of Pediatrics.
The report's authors say it is the first large study to show that young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and youngsters with other developmental delays or disorders are all at significant risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Of the children with autism, those with more severe symptoms and higher levels of impairment were shown to be at the highest risk of developing obesity by age 5.
"These findings make it clear that monitoring these children for excess weight gain at an early age is critical, and that prevention efforts should be expanded to include not just children with ASD, but those with other developmental diagnoses as well," said Susan E. Levy, lead study author and medical director of the Center for Autism Research at CHOP.
The study's results can help inform parents and health providers about the potential health risks these children face and take the necessary steps to avoid those pitfalls and make healthier choices, Levy said.
The research was part of the ongoing Study to Explore Early Development, a multi-site, federally funded project. The participants in this study included 668 children with ASD, 914 with developmental delays or disorders, and 884 from the general population. They hailed from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, and North Carolina.
The study found that children with autism were 57 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than the general population, while youngsters with severe ASD symptoms were 70 percent more likely than their neurotypical peers to have excessive weight.
The children in the study who had other developmental delays or disorders were 38 percent more likely to have weight problems. That included numerous conditions, such as speech and attention delays and Down syndrome, among others.
"We need more research to understand why these children are more likely to develop obesity, and which children are at the highest risk," Levy said.
Identifying how these children individually developed weight problems was not part of the study's scope. The children were measured for height and weight, and each child's health history was obtained, including information about medical, developmental and psychiatric conditions. In addition, the children's caregivers were asked to complete questionnaires that included information about behavioral or sensor difficulties.
However, it is known that some medical conditions are relatively common among children with autism, and they may have a role in weight gain, according to the study's authors. Those include endocrine disorders, genetic disorders, gastrointestinal problems, rigid food choices, medication-related side effects, and sleep disturbances.
The authors also noted that the children with autism and other developmental disorders in the study samples also had higher levels of other issues, including motor and speech delays and behavioral problems that can affect children socially and recreationally.
Childhood excess weight and obesity are national health concerns, and not only for special-needs youngsters. In this study, nearly 20 percent of even the general-population children were overweight or obese. Close to 28 percent of the children with autism and 25 percent of those with development disorders or delays met the criteria to be classified as overweight or obese.