For World Autism Awareness Day (April 2nd), I wanted to share what I learned during my nutrition rotation in a daycare that worked with autistic kids and how this made me see nutrition in a different light.
But first, a little background on Autism. According to Autism Speaks, autism is characterized by “challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.” It is estimated that 1 in 59 children in the United States are affected by autism. Thankfully, autism has gained more awareness in the past couple of years. And because of this, we now know more about the different types of therapies, supplements, and of course, we can’t forget the role that nutrition can also play here.
The first time that I experienced working with autistic kids was when I was doing my internship after finishing my nutrition Bachelors in Brazil. I chose to do one of my rotations in a daycare that also worked with autistic kids. This was probably about 10 years ago and it was one of the best experiences!
This daycare is located in a charming little neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. From that time, one of their main goals was to normalize kids interactions with autistic kids as well as this being a tool to help the developing of their social skills and behavior. And they were quite successful at it! The kids were divided by their age groups and did all their activities together, including their meal time. The only difference is that the autistic kids that needed a little extra attention, would usually have someone from the staff assigned to help them.
My role there was to create the menu for the kids (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks), provide guidance to the cooks and make sure that the kitchen was always following regulations, and my favorite part, working with the kids to teach them about nutrition. We would make recipes together, act out little nutrition skits, take them to go on grocery store tours, and have them try out all the different fruits.
But out of everything, I think what was most eye-opening was seeing how nutrition can make a huge difference in kids’ health. We would focus on fresh, non-processed foods and everything was cooked in house. Lunch and dinner would typically include rice, beans, a type of protein (either chicken, eggs, fish or some other meat), and tons of different cooked veggies. Snack time as well as dessert would usually be a seasonal fruit.
One of the reasons the nutrition team would avoid processed foods is because of the additives that come with it. Not only added to preserve the food but also artificial/natural color and flavor. These can affect our gut and overall health. If this is so important for adults, imagine how proper nutrition is for kids? In their growth, brain health, gut health, bones, and general development!
The daycare would also provide an option for those parents that wanted to have their kids on a gluten and milk protein free diet. This option was included in particular for the kids with autism since there’s some research that shows benefits from removing these types of inflammation-triggering foods.
Although the cause itself of autism is not well understood, one thing is true. Nutrition can make a big difference! I saw it myself during the months I worked at the daycare. It was the beginning of me fully understanding the role and impact that nutrition has. And in particular, it was the first time I saw a team that approached nutrition with personalization in mind. Adapting and understand each kids’ individual needs. We are all different and have different nutrient needs, after all. It set me up for the nutrition coach I now am and I am forever grateful for this experience.
If you are a parent of a kid with autism or know someone, remember that there are wonderful resources (like Autism Speaks) and experts that can support you and the health of your child. And don’t forget to give nutrition a little love. It’s something that may not seem obvious at first, but it truly is life-changing!