Newswise — Adapting family-centered nutrition programs can positively influence diet behaviors in children with autism, according to a new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the most common developmental disabilities in children. Because many children with autism battle with obesity, researchers evaluated the adaptation and implementation of an existing, evidence-based nutrition program for children with autism and their parents.

“Historically, children with autism have been excluded from this type of programming often designed for neurotypical kids. We know that children with autism face greater challenges. One of these challenges is that they often have two to five times the rate of obesity than other kids. So, we wanted to help this population that often lacks these specialized resources,” said Brenda Manzanarez, MS, RD, The Diabetes and Obesity Program, Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Department of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

 Children aged 7−12 years with autism and their parents participated in six weekly, 90-minute classes attended by the whole family as part of the Kids N Fitness© program developed at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Each class was structured around four core elements: (1) family-centered nutrition education; (2) parent support; (3) physical activity; and (4) goal setting.

“We had trained staff that delivered the curriculum along with applied behavior analyst therapists who provided support and feedback on how we could improve the curriculum. At the end of the sessions, we found it challenging to keep up the retention of families, with about 26% completing the program. Interestingly, we found that those who did complete the entire program did have 100% attendance,” Manzanarez continued. “The families voiced that they liked the program and seeing changes in their kids like improving their eating habits, being more positive, and engaging in exercise as a form of movement.”

 Families reported valuing the opportunity to ask questions and share successful experiences and approaches to increase their child’s healthy food repertoire. On completing participation in the pilot, families reported their children to be more willing to try new foods, proactively added colorful foods to their plate during mealtimes, and expressed greater interest in exercise. In addition, the curriculum seemed to resonate with child participants, as documented by both staff and parents, who noted that children recalled main messages from prior weeks’ lessons.

 The increasing prevalence of ASD and childhood obesity merits innovative interventions involving the whole family. Family-based community programs that address problematic mealtime behaviors and provide family-centered nutrition education may prove an important adjunct or alternative to more time a resource-intensive one-on-one interventions, such as traditional feeding therapies. As children with ASD are often excluded from traditional learning settings, findings from this pilot can contribute to the development of evidence-based practices of community-based nutrition interventions for children with ASD and their families.

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 Notes for editors

The article is “Lessons in Adapting a Family-Based Nutrition Program for Children with Autism,” by Brenda Manzanarez, MS, RD; Samantha Garcia, MS; Ellen Iverson, MPH; Megan R. Lipton-Inga, MA, CCRP; and Kevin Blaine, MA Ed (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2021.09.003). It appears in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, volume 53, issue 12 (December 2021), published by Elsevier.

 The article is openly available at https://www.jneb.org/article/S1499-4046(21)00810-1/fulltext.

 Full text of the article is also available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Eileen Leahy at +1 732 238 3628 or [email protected] to obtain a copy. To schedule an interview with the author(s), please contact Brenda Manzanarez, MS, RD, at [email protected].

An audio podcast featuring an interview with Brenda Manzanarez, MS, RD, and other information for journalists are available at www.jneb.org/content/media. Excerpts from the podcast may be reproduced by the media with permission from Eileen Leahy.

About the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB)

Advancing Research, Practice and Policy

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB), the official journal of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB), is a refereed, scientific periodical that serves as a resource for all professionals with an interest in nutrition education and dietary/physical activity behaviors. The purpose of JNEB is to document and disseminate original research, emerging issues, and practices relevant to nutrition education and behavior worldwide and to promote healthy, sustainable food choices. It supports the society’s efforts to disseminate innovative nutrition education strategies, and communicate information on food, nutrition, and health issues to students, professionals, policymakers, targeted audiences, and the public.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior features articles that provide new insights and useful findings related to nutrition education research, practice, and policy. The content areas of JNEB reflect the diverse interests of health, nutrition, education, Cooperative Extension, and other professionals working in areas related to nutrition education and behavior. As the Society's official journal, JNEB also includes occasional policy statements, issue perspectives, and member communications. www.jneb.org

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