TUESDAY, May 4, 2021 (HealthDay News) — While it is well recognized that autism and certain eating issues go hand in hand, does sex play a role?
Apparently it will, according to Swedish researchers who set out to better understand whether being male or female influenced eating issues in people who have autism.
The study found that behavioral traits called eating difficulties, but the connection was more pronounced particularly among women or women. These issues around eating might increase the risk of social isolation for females with autism, the investigators also found.
“We didn’t study the potential genetic difference between males and females, but we did look at this association between autism and eating problems. And we wanted to know if that was different between females and males,” said study author Karl Lundin Remnelius, a PhD student at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.
The particular eating problems that were noted by females involved social preferences, Remnelius said.
“These items were, for example,’I find it difficult to eat with buddies’ or’I believe it is difficult to eat in school or in a workplace or in a restaurant,'” Remnelius said. “And we actually saw when we looked closer at this subscale that it was only these social items that autistic females report or had higher scores in.”
The analysis also found that behavioral traits called increased eating problems. This might not be that autism also causes eating problems but that certain genetic factors could cause both, Remnelius explained.
“We don’t know if this is causal, is autism causing eating problems, or if there might be some other factor that might be influencing both autism and eating problems. One thing could be that some of the genes that increase the likelihood of a person having autism might also increase the likelihood of a person having eating problems,” Remnelius said.
“Sometimes you describe that as genetic confounding, so it’s not really autism causing eating problems,” he said. “It’s more that people who have autism also have a sort of higher likelihood of having eating problems.”
The study included nearly 200 identical and fraternal twins between the ages of 15 and 33, such as 28 individuals diagnosed with autism, who were all part of the Roots of Autism and ADHD Twin Study in Sweden. The study looked at associations across the entire sample and then within the twin pairs.
Participants reported that their eating problems in a questionnaire that covered eating issues in a wide way, Remnelius said. Participants also had neurodevelopmental assessments, and investigators collected parent-reported behavioural traits information.
Eating problems included selective ingestion, sensory sensitivity concerning symptoms and food of eating disorders.
These societal eating problems might limit females out of having opportunities for social interaction, Remnelius indicated, saying there should be more research on the issue.
The findings were presented Monday in the International Society for Autism Research virtual yearly meeting. Such research is considered preliminary until printed in a peer-reviewed journal.
The study confirms results found before, stated Pamela Feliciano, scientific manager of SPARK (Simons Powering Autism Research), that was not involved with this study.
Past research has demonstrated a link between autism or with autistic traits and consuming eating selectivity. Cognitive inflexibility could be a risk factor for disordered eating, she explained.
The thought that there’s a sex difference in eating problems is interesting and a new facet that should be understood more, Feliciano said.
“I do think that becomes important,” she explained. “If a kid with autism will only eat three things, it will be really hard for that kid to integrate into social situations.”
It may also be challenging for families to have experiences when eating is so restricted, Feliciano said. Therapy can help change this by gradually building a individual’s eating repertoire.
Many parents of kids who have disabilities report discerning eating, ” she mentioned. Some children will consume just fewer than five meals or only food of a certain colour.
“It’s complicated. I think the repetitive behavior, the tendency for repetitive behavior and wanting to do the same thing over and over again plays into it, but there’s also — and research has shown this — is a sensory component of it,” Feliciano clarified. “So, if kids have a sensory sensitivity to loud noises and can’t stand it, eating a crunchy food is going to be painful to them.”
The Autism Society is a research organization that offers information on autism.
SOURCES: Karl Lundin Remnelius, PhD student, Karolinska Institutet and Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden; Pamela Feliciano, PhD, Simons Powering Autism Research (SPARK), New York City, International Society for Autism Research virtual Yearly meeting, May 3, 2021