New Study Released on Eating Behaviors for Children with Autism


A new study released in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition examined multidisciplinary intervention for childhood feeding difficulties in children with autism.

The study, led by Jeanne Marshall, Rebecca Hill, Robert Ware, Jenny Ziviani, and Pamela Dodrill aimed to determine whether operant conditioning or systematic desensitization intervention resulted in more improvements in dietary variety and intake as well as more reductions in difficult mealtime behavior.

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that includes using rewards and punishments, often classified as classical conditioning, while systematic desensitization focuses on helping patients overcome anxieties or phobias.

The study worked with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from the ages of 2 to 6. Clinical assessments were used to confirm feeding difficulties prior to starting the study. The Participants were then randomized and received 10 sessions of either operant conditioning or systematic desensitization. Each child’s parents determined the intensity of their child’s schedule and could choose between one week of intensive therapy or for an extended one session per week therapy calendar. Parents were also included in the educational therapy sessions.

After 3 months of receiving therapy, the data showed that in total 68 participants completed the study. Out of 78 participants, no significant differences were measurable between the two groups receiving operant conditioning or systematic desensitization in their feeding routines. Although the overall data was not considered statistically significant due to the small amount in measured differences, the findings were considered clinically significant.

Participants in the operative conditioning group demonstrated an increase in dietary variety in contrast with the systematic desensitization group. The overall conclusion of the study was that the results suggested experienced therapists coupled with parental education, could use operative conditioning to better encourage ASD children to improve their diet and food intake.

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