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Weight Management for Children in the Autistic Community

Article contributed by authors, Dr. Johanna Spangenberg, PT, DPT and Dr. Jennifer Kieffer, PT, DPT, Physical Therapists at The Vanguard School


Weight challenges are impacting children across the Unites States at an alarming rate. The number of children who are overweight or obese is rising and the COVID-19 pandemic added to the difficultly of maintaining healthy body stature. 


Many factors influence weight such as genetics and physiological, environmental, and socioeconomic concerns. Autistic children are 2 to 3 times more likely to be obese than children who are developing typically. There are many barriers to healthy weight that children with autism and their families face:


  • Medications used to help with concerns associated with autism can lead to weight gain and/or food-seeking behaviors.


  • Autistic children may be highly interested in technology and screen time. Research shows that there is a direct link between screen time and weight gain.


  • Learning new motor skills and being physically active can be hard for some autistic kids. Behavior challenges, sensory sensitivity, and social skills challenges can make it harder to succeed during team games and physical activities if their needs are not considered.


  • Autistic kids may have food selectivity and make food choices that favor less nutritious food.


Here are some suggestions families with autistic children can consider to minimize weight challenges.


  • Ask your child’s doctors to suggest medications that have as small of an impact on weight as possible but still effectively manage your child’s needs.


  • Screen time is hard to limit. Have everyone in the household take a break together. Use technology that promotes movement (i.e., Geocaching, physically interactive video games, and YouTube movement videos), television or screen control devices, and setting up a family media plan.


  • Autistic kids participate more when they are active with people they feel safe and comfortable with. Planning family outings may make it easier to get involved in activities outside the home. Please see a list of Physical Activity Opportunities in the communities where our Vanguard students live. (To better help your child explore movement and physical activities, seek out organizations that employ staff who are comfortable working with children with special needs. Look for programs that support sensory, motor, social skills, and/or behavioral needs.)


  • Exercise can have psychological benefits, help increase bone strength, and improve mood and health overall. Walking every day is a free and convenient way to get moving. The Daily Mile is an example of a worldwide initiative to help kids develop a habit of moving each day.  


Vanguard staff appreciate that raising an autistic child may be stressful and taking on food concerns may not be possible. Please know we are here to support our students and their families if this is an area that is important to you.


If outside help is needed, please see the list of Weight Management Clinics in our area that was compiled by Nurse Angie Alderman.