Teens with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be more likely to be obese and stay obese throughout their teen years compared to other teenagers, a new study suggests.
The researchers noted that childhood obesity could have long-term health consequences for those with ASDs. They said more study is needed to understand age-related changes that could help prevent and treat obesity among teens with the disorder.
“Children with developmental disabilities face unique challenges and are not always served by health interventions aimed at those without disorders such as ASD,” said study author Aviva Must. Must is chair of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
“The complexity of their medical needs is both why particular attention should be paid to their circumstances and why it is difficult to do so,” Must said in a university news release.
The study included almost 44,000 people between the ages of 10 and 17. The children and teens had participated in the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health. That survey included information about weight, height, gender, race, socioeconomic status and whether or not someone had an ASD.
Obesity was more common among the children and teens with an autism spectrum disorder. The researchers found 23 percent of those with the disorder were obese, compared to 14 percent of those who didn’t have ASD.
The rate of obesity among young people who didn’t have autism spectrum disorder fell by 50 percent between the ages of 10 and 17. But, obesity rates among those with an ASD didn’t change during these years, the study showed. Obesity was also more common among boys with ASD than girls, the researchers noted.
“We expected to see an increased prevalence of obesity with age in children with ASD compared to those without ASD, which would increase the obesity disparity,” said Must.
“What we found was that the disparity did increase with age over adolescence, but the underlying patterns were not as expected. The prevalence of obesity in the ASD group was high and remained so, while the prevalence in children without ASD declined over adolescence,” Must said.
Young people with autism spectrum disorder tend to have rigid behaviors, relying on routine and lack of change. They may also have sensory sensitivity. Use of food to ease these behaviors or reduce stress during certain situations could play a role in high rates of obesity among these children, the study’s authors explained.
Young people with ASD may also be less active, increasing their risk for weight gain, the researchers pointed out.
“When it comes to energy expenditure, exercise for many teens comes in the form of competitive sports, in which children with developmental disabilities are less likely to take part,” said study senior author Linda Bandini. She’s an associate professor at UMass Medical School Shriver Center and the department of health sciences at Boston University.
“And another reward and calming technique parents of children with ASD have reported using is television, which may contribute to higher levels of sedentary behavior,” she added.
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