Children with developmental delays, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), are up to 50 percent more likely to be overweight or obese compared to those in the general population, according to new research published online in The Journal of Pediatrics.
The study, conducted by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the University of Pennsylvania and six other centers, is the first to show that young children with ASD or developmental delays face a very high risk of developing obesity.
Among children with ASD, those with a higher degree of impairment and more severe symptoms were found to be at even greater risk of developing obesity by age five.
The study involved children between the ages of two and five years old, as this age group is an important window for early obesity prevention. This included 668 children with ASD, 914 children with developmental delays or disorders and 884 children from the general population who served as controls. Children’s heights and weights were measured during clinical visits, and ASD severity was measured using the Ohio State University Global Severity Scale for Autism.
The findings show that kids with ASD were 1.57 times more likely to be overweight or obese than the general population; children with developmental delays were 1.38 times more likely to be overweight or obese. The risk for obesity was even more pronounced in children with severe ASD symptoms, as they were 1.7 times more likely to be classified as overweight or obese than children with mild ASD symptoms.
“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, MD, MPH, the study’s lead author and medical director of the Center for Autism Research at CHOP.
Although other studies have reported a greater risk of obesity in kids with ASD, the new study is the first to examine if children with other developmental disabilities are also at increased risk for developing obesity. In addition, the researchers examined any links between excess weight gain and the presence of other medical, behavioral, developmental, or psychiatric conditions.
“We need more research to understand why these children are more likely to develop obesity, and which children are at the highest risk,” said Levy.
Other medical conditions are very common in kids with ASD, and the authors note that these may play a role in excess weight gain. Possible factors include endocrine disorders, genetic disorders, gastrointestinal symptoms, medication-associated side effects, sleep disturbances, or rigid food choices, among others.
The new findings shed light into possible mechanisms underlying the greater risk of obesity in children with ASD and may ultimately offer targets for early intervention. The researchers suggest that clinicians monitor children with ASD or developmental delays/disorders for signs of excess weight gain, and that they offer specific guidance for their parents to help prevent obesity.
The research was conducted as part of the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED).