An autism nutritionist / dietitian plays an important role in the health of autistic kids and adults. They understand the neurodivergence lens and the unique nutritional needs of autistic kids and adults. An autism nutritionist knows how to tailor their recommendations to each individual person as they are aware that autism presents differently in every person.
Typically, when it comes to someone with autism, many people are involved in supporting them. Whether it be parents, caregivers, group home staff, or other healthcare professionals, an autism nutritionist involves all of them in an inclusive, client-centered manner.
Note that in this article, I will be using the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” interchangeably but will explain the difference between the two below.
Read on to learn the role autistic nutritionists / dietitians play in supporting you or your child with autism.
The Top 5 Reasons You Need an Autism Nutritionist
- Registered Dietitians are nutrition experts and utilize a client-centered, evidence-based approach
- Autism nutritionists will support autistic folks with optimal digestive health
- You will work on expanding your or your child’s diet, trying new foods, correcting nutritional deficiencies, and reducing meal time stress
- Autistic adults will develop positive, sustainable health habits
- Nutrition plays an important role in autism through all life stages
1. Registered Dietitians are the Nutrition Experts
Difference Between a Nutritionist and Dietitian
Registered Dietitians (RDs) are the most qualified nutrition experts to be supporting autistic children and adults. You’ll notice that I use the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” interchangeably throughout this article. The reason for that is because the term “nutritionist” is more familiar to most folks and is also more searched for on the internet.
There is a difference between the terms though. In Canada, the term “nutritionist” is not a protected title, which means anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”. That’s right, someone who took a 4-week nutrition course can call themselves a “nutritionist”, so you really don’t know what kind of training they’ve had.
In the US, the terms “Registered Dietitian” (RD) and “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist” (RDN) are protected titles.
The term “dietitian” is a protected title, which means in order to legally use that title, you must complete an accredited 4-year nutrition degree, an accredited dietetic internship, pass the Canadian Dietetic Registration Exam, follow a code of ethical standards, and be a member of your province’s regulating governing body.
My schooling involved completing an undergraduate degree in Kinesiology, a second undergraduate degree in Nutrition, a Masters of Health Science in Nutrition Communication which included 8 months of dietetic internship rotations with Special Olympics Ontario, outpatient nutrition counseling at a community health centre, and hospital rotations in several different inpatient units. Upon graduating, I then wrote both the Canadian and American dietetic board exams to become licensed in both countries.
In summary, if someone is a dietitian, they are also a nutritionist but not every nutritionist is a dietitian.
Further, in order to maintain our license, dietitians are required to continue their education in order to stay up to date with the latest nutrition science. To keep my US credentials, I need to complete 75 continuing education credits every 5 years.
In order to be an expert in autism nutrition and stay up to date, I have done countless continuing education webinars, read books on picky eating and sensory processing disorders, taken a course on picky eating in autistic children, and read many research studies.
Why have I done this? Simply because I am passionate about working with the autism community, I love learning, and I want to be the best autism nutritionist / dietitian I can be.
What is Unique About Dietitians?
According to the College of Dietitians of Ontario website, “Registered Dietitians (RDs) in Ontario are trained food and nutrition experts. They are recognized experts in translating scientific, medical, and nutrition information into practical healthy meal plans and helping individuals, their families, and communities to access nutrition for health.”
In simple terms, this means you can trust that your dietitian won’t recommend anything that isn’t backed by scientific research. They also will take a full picture of your lifestyle into account when providing recommendations and won’t go suggesting tons of super expensive supplements or “woo woo” diet trends, as an example. They will meet you and your family where you’re at in your health journey and provide custom, realistic recommendations.
2. Autism Nutritionists Will Support Autistic Folks with Optimal Digestive Health
Did you know that autistic children are 8x more likely to have gastrointestinal (GI) issues compared to neurotypical children? These gut issues include constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, vomiting, reflux, and abdominal pain. It is estimated that 9% – 90% of people with ASD experience digestive symptoms.
Studies have also shown that autistic folks have an imbalance of gut bacteria (called dysbiosis) in their intestines compared to their neurotypical counterparts, which is one potential explanation for increased GI issues.
Another explanation is that many children and adults with ASD have sensory processing issues around food textures and eat a small number of foods. They are also more likely to gravitate towards processed food and less likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (ie. sources of fibre). This low fibre diet can contribute to constipation and/or diarrhea.
Note that there are many other factors that can contribute to digestive symptoms in ASD, such as food sensitivities, withholding going to the toilet, medications, low fluid intake, and changes in routine.
The great news is that an autism nutritionist / dietitian can support autistic children, families, and adults with improving their digestive symptoms through diet and supplements. Personally, I find it highly rewarding to hear that a client’s bowel movements have normalized, especially after experiencing years of bloating, constipation, or diarrhea.
3. Autism Nutritionists Support with Diet Expansion, Nutrient Deficiencies, and Reducing Meal Time Stress
Selective or “picky” eating is very common in the ASD community. It’s estimated that autistic kiddos have a five-fold risk of feeding issues compared to non-autistic kiddos. A common reason for this selective eating is sensory processing dysfunction, which makes it difficult for autistic folks to accept a wide variety of foods as they are sensitive to the taste, smell, colours, or textures of foods. Roughly 45-95% of autistic individuals experience sensory processing difficulties.
Autistic children are more likely to gravitate towards processed foods, snacks, and starches and less likely to want to eat fruits, vegetables, protein, calcium-rich foods, and high fiber foods. This puts them at higher risk for vitamin or mineral deficiencies, the most common ones being calcium, vitamin D, B12, and iron.
Elimination diets (such as the gluten-free, casein-free diet [GFCF]) also put autistic folks at risk for nutrient deficiencies, digestive symptoms, and a more limited diet. If a family wants their child to stay on a GFCF diet, an autism nutritionist will support them in implementing it and ensuring the child maintains good digestive health and gets all the nutrients they need.
When it comes to selective eating in ASD, an interdisciplinary approach is crucial. There are many Occupational Therapists (OT) or Speech Language Pathologists (SLP) who work on the sensory challenges with autistic kids, and a lot of dietitians do as well if they have done the extra training.
An autism nutritionist / dietitian will support autistic adults, children, and families with:
- Practical tips and tricks for expanding diet and introducing new foods
- Recommending vitamin or mineral supplements (if necessary) to fill in for nutrient gaps in diet
- Establishing meal and snack time structure
- Reducing meal time stress and anxiety for kids and parents
- Getting kids and adults involved in cooking
4. Autistic Adults will Establish Positive, Sustainable Health Habits
The vast majority of nutrition and autism research has been done on children, sadly. There are very few studies done on autistic adults. However, they can still benefit tremendously from seeing an autism nutritionist / dietitian.
Something unique about my private practice is that I see both kids AND adults with autism, whereas most practitioners only see autistic children.
During my dietetic internship training, I did a 10-week rotation with Special Olympics Ontario where I ran nutrition workshops and cooking classes for adult athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This placement is what sparked my passion for working with the autism community.
I realized how big of a need there was to provide nutrition education and counseling to this underserved population and the positive impact these programs can have. The research supports this as well. In a small pilot study, a group of adults with developmental disabilities participated in a cooking-based nutrition education program with their support workers. Positive trends in cooking skills, eating healthier, and healthy food prep remained with the participants 6 months after the program ended.
As someone who is empathetic, caring, and nonjudgmental, I strive to make my clients feel comfortable working with me knowing I will never negatively judge their eating habits. We work together to set small, realistic goals each session that they’ll be able to turn into long-term habits long after we’re done working together.
As an autism nutritionist, I understand the unique barriers and challenges that autistic adults face, and I work with them to come up with attainable goals tailored specifically to their needs. We work together to come up with simple meals and snacks that they or their caregivers can prep in advance so that they can become as independent as possible.
In my private practice, I support these adults with the following areas:
- Chronic disease management (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease)
- Mindful eating tools (body acceptance, learning to listen to internal hunger/fullness cues)
- Managing digestive symptoms (constipation, diarrhea)
- General healthy eating
- Meal prep and planning
- Diet expansion / picky eating
5. Nutrition Plays an Important Role in Autism
Hopefully, now I’ve convinced you why autistic children and adults NEED to see an autism nutritionist. This community has unique nutritional needs that have the power to improve their digestive health, reduce family stress, expand their food repertoire, learn mindful eating tools, and teach them cooking and food prep skills.
There is so much confusing information out there about diet and autism that is not based on any scientific evidence. A Registered Dietitian specializing in autism will separate fact from fiction for you and provide evidence-based recommendations tailored to your unique needs.
From expanding diet preferences as children to learning meal prep skills as adults and everywhere in between, nutrition can benefit autistic folks during all life stages. To learn more about my 1:1 nutrition counseling services for the autism community, click here to see my paediatric packages and here to see my adult packages.
Want more? Check out my article on adaptive feeding equipment.