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Are eating habits associated with autism a barrier to education?

It’s long been proven that a varied, nutrient rich diet is important for our brain.

For autistic children and their families’ meal times can be hard: sensory challenges, motor delay and a need for routine can all make it difficult to include a healthy range of foods into diets.   

However, very restricted diets can result in poor nutrition, and this can have a range of impacts on health. Below are some of the ways restrictive diets and disordered eating may affect a child’s learning:    

Increased absences 

Not getting the right nutrients can impair the immune system. As a result students become more vulnerable to illness and increased time off school.  

Reduced memory and concentration

Deficiencies in nutrients, such as iron, can have an immediate impact on students’ memory and ability to concentrate. For example, leading to increased irritability, inattention and hyperactivity.   

Reduced energy 

Without enough calories learners can become less active, more lethargic and withdrawn. Therefore, they may engage in fewer social interactions, leading to isolation.  

Increased anxiety and depression 

Nutrients such as iron and vitamin B6 are used to produce ‘happy’ hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. Not having enough of these nutrients can affect wellbeing, reducing motivation and increasing avoidant behaviours.  

Useful resources

There are plenty of strategies for getting more variety into your child’s diet, and plenty of support to help you on this journey. Remember that eating challenges are common for autistic children. However, many families overcome extreme restrictive eating through patience, perseverance and understanding.  

It’s good idea to talk with your child’s GP, paediatrician or a dietitian if you are concerned that your child may not be getting the nutrition they need. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Eating programmes are available and, with the right guidance, you can support your child to develop healthier eating habits and grow their food confidence.   

The Association of UK Dieticians has prepared this helpful resource to understand some of the most important nutrients for your child’s brain. Or if you are looking to increase the variety of your child’s diet you can read our top tips for introducing new foods.   

This NHS guide offers occupational therapy approved strategies for how to tackle picky eating at home and school.


Bellisle, 2004 – Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children (  

Mikawa et al, 2013 – Low serum concentrations of vitamin B6 and iron are related to panic attack and hyperventilation attack – PubMed (  

Diet, behaviour and learning in children | British Dietetic Association (BDA) 

NHS – Skills for Living Occupational Therapy Advice for Picky Eaters – feeding resource pack.pdf ( 

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