Spectrum: Weighing up autism's obesity crisis
Autism’s underlying biology, associated behaviors and treatments can all put people on the spectrum at serious risk for obesity.
By Carrie Arnold
Nicholas Bavaro has always been bigger than his twin brother. He was nearly a pound heavier than Christopher at birth, and by the time the boys hit their first birthday, their mother, Lynette, had noticed other differences, too. Christopher babbled, made eye contact and pointed as he toddled around the family’s home in Long Island, New York. Nicholas did not — and was soon diagnosed with autism.
Obesity runs in the Bavaros’ extended family, but their active lifestyle helps Christopher and the twins’ parents and younger sister keep the extra pounds off. Nicholas, however, doesn’t share their love of sports. He has motor difficulties and is minimally verbal — he often says “no” when the others propose bike rides or long walks.
When Nicholas was little, the fact that he was overweight seemed trivial compared with his communication difficulties and meltdowns, during which he would shout, red-faced, for hours or barricade himself in his room. By the time he was 10, though, his weight had skyrocketed to 170 pounds. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, his body mass index (BMI) was in the highest percentile for boys his age. The pediatrician suggested only that his parents should count his calories. That didn’t work.
Now, at 15, Nicholas is 7 inches taller, nearly 100 pounds heavier and dangerously obese. Much to his parents’ frustration, he is not interested in the health benefits of losing weight, and is oblivious to factors — such as peer acceptance — that can sometimes motivate other children.
Nicholas’ situation is common among young people with autism. A 2014 study of more than 6,000 children and teenagers on the spectrum found that they are more than twice as likely to be overweight and nearly five times as likely to be obese as their typical peers.
Learn more about the Weight Management program at Children's Mercy.