dave-mittlemanMany of us have dealt with finicky eating: perhaps we were finicky eaters as children, had our own picky eaters, or have experienced both of those scenarios. Like me, you probably just blamed it on a childhood disdain for all things green and vegetable-related. According to researchers, however, finicky eating during childhood can be a warning sign for something much more serious.

Researchers at the University of Bristol studied a database of all children born between 1991 and 1992 who volunteered to participate in a study originally conducted in Avon, England. The children’s caregivers compiled detailed information describing the kids’ eating habits at five different life intervals beginning at 6 months of age and ending at four-and-a-half. By the end of the study, when the children were 7-years-old, 79 had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder compared with 12,901 that were not. Furthermore, the autistic children were 35% more likely than unaffected children to be so-called “slow feeders”: by 1-year-old, the children had considerably less varied diets that included fewer fruits and vegetables but also fewer sweets and carbonated drinks.

Overall, the new study suggests that feeding problems may be considered an early sign of autism. Nevertheless, the researchers do not suggest that feeding patterns are sufficient or necessary to diagnose autism. However, since most cases of autism are not diagnosed until a child is 2 or 3-years-old, feeding problems could still be considered an early sign of autism related to autistic children’s common difficulties with chewing and swallowing or sensory challenges. For example, some autistic children may become frustrated with their difficulties consuming food and give up, while others dislike the texture of certain foods because of their hypersensitivity to particular tactile sensations. Of course, there is still a fine line between finicky eating and a child with autism. But persistent pickiness during meal times may be an indicator to look for other signs of autism such as disinterest in toys.