Children with ASD have a fivefold increase in eating problems when compared to typically developing children. These extreme eating behaviors often lead to serious health consequences (e.g., malnutrition, obesity) and are cause for significant parental stress and burden. We have yet to truly understand the mechanisms associated with these difficult behaviors in children with ASD, and there is no standard of care to treat feeding issues in ASD, perhaps because our current feeding interventions are not mechanistically-informed. Thus, this study uses a biobehavioral approach to uncover these mechanisms by drawing from other eating disordered populations that show symptom overlap with ASD. Neurobehavioral models of eating behavior link the role of attention in maintaining extreme eating behaviors, and this study will use innovative eye-tracking technology to objectively examine attentional bias towards food. Further, we will examine how behaviorally expressed symptoms of ASD (e.g., repetitive behaviors) are associated with these food-related attentional mechanisms. Lastly, given the environment is likely to influence children?s eating behaviors, we will examine how the home environment affects the eating behaviors of children with ASD.
Our aims i nclude:
Aim 1 : To use eye-tracking technology to examine food-related attentional biases in children with ASD compared to TD children.
Aim 2 : To examine if we can reliably measure the naturalistic characteristics of the environment and eating behaviors of children with ASD at home. Exploratory Aim 3: To explore if behaviorally expressed symptoms of ASD are associated with food attentional biases. Training goals for this study will involve: 1) advanced training in eye tracking, 2) obtaining a strong basis in research design, methodology, and observational data collection, 3) strengthening statistical knowledge, 4) expanding clinical knowledge of eating behaviors, and 5) developing concrete professional development plans leading to independent research funding. The overall impact of this study will be determining the interplay and driving mechanisms of eating behaviors in ASD. We anticipate this study will provide robust pilot data that will lead to future funding and a larger sample size to determine underlying mechanisms of eating behaviors in children with ASD. Further, given the lack of empirically validated treatment approaches, and the high rates of treatment resistance for feeding problems in ASD, this study will provide a basis towards biologically informed eating interventions for children with ASD to reduce deleterious health consequences associated with extreme eating behaviors.

Public Health Relevance

Extreme eating behaviors are widespread across children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and these are associated with serious health issues (e.g., obesity, malnutrition); however, we have yet to understand what factors drive these behaviors. This study seeks to examine multiple mechanisms of eating behavior in children with ASD. By understanding underlying mechanisms of eating behavior, we can move toward developing stronger treatment approaches to improve the health and well-being of children with ASD and their families.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
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Kau, Alice S
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University of Kansas Lawrence
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United States
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