By Rachel Huynh
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) living in the US are 40% more likely than neurotypical children to become overweight or obese.1 Because of oversensitivity to certain textures and tastes of food, those with ASD also tend to be picky eaters.2 After learning about these nutrition-related health challenges that individuals with autism face, FCSN volunteer Rachel Huynh realized a dire need for special-needs students to build healthy lifestyle habits. As a nutrition major at Brown University, she decided to design a nutrition curriculum for students with special needs.
In September 2020, she crafted a simple — but not simplistic — and engaging curriculum that would teach students how to build a healthy, balanced diet in their daily lives. Her ultimate career goal is to play a role in combating the current epidemic of physical inactivity and unhealthy dietary habits that affects individuals with ASD and — more broadly — the general US population, at a staggering rate.
Since fall 2020, Rachel has taught her course — titled “Nutrition in my Life” to four students — Julian Huang, Justin Huang, Ansley Tran, and Darren Ng. Rachel challenged these students to establish and practice healthy habits by using the Healthy Habits Tracker. However, she was realistic with her expectations of the students. It takes much longer than a few months to build a healthy lifestyle. She encourages small steps — adding in 20 minutes of walking three times a week, adding one vegetable into a dish, or exchanging salty chips for a fruit platter snack — to achieve the ultimate goal of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
High school volunteers Jessica Yu — the FCSN cooking class teacher — and Katherine Niu are also enthusiastic about educating FCSN students about healthy lifestyles. They worked closely with Rachel this semester to help deliver an engaging arsenal of activities and lessons to the students. Activities included keeping a food journal, tracking calories, visiting a farmers market or grocery store, creating and sharing healthy recipes, making a colorful salad, and role-playing ordering food from different restaurants.
Rachel’s curriculum development is motivated by her observations of FCSN students’ generally poor eating habits. She has observed them at FCSN events mindlessly eating hot dogs, French fries, chicken nuggets, potato chips, and macaroni and cheese. While these foods are okay in moderation, Rachel teaches her FCSN students how to identify “once-in-a-while” foods and “anytime” foods. Fast foods contain “empty calories,” meaning they have a lot of calories that can cause weight gain but not a lot of nutrients (e.g. vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) that support health.
In addition to teaching scientifically supported guidelines on what a healthy diet entails, Rachel also empowers her students to have agency in their nutrition plans. This means that students should not need to rely on their parents to force them to eat vegetables, fruits, and other components of a healthy diet. She hopes that her students will know which foods will fuel their bodies and support health, and then be able to make healthy decisions based on their knowledge of nutrition.
Ultimately, Rachel hopes that her FCSN nutrition class will help students become aware of their health habits and be able to nudge them in a direction of positive change. She aims to continue teaching the FCSN nutrition class and share her knowledge of nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits so that the amazing students at FCSN can live healthy, fulfilling lives for years to come.
- C.N. Kahathuduwa, B.D. West, J. Blume, N. Dharavath, N. Moustaid‐Moussa, A. Mastergeorge. The risk of overweight and obesity in children with autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Obesity Reviews, 20 (12) (2019), pp. 1667-1679, 10.1111/obr.12933.
- Chistol LT, Bandini LG, Must A, Phillips S, Cermak SA, Curtin C. Sensory Sensitivity and Food Selectivity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018 Feb;48(2):583-591. doi: 10.1007/s10803-017-3340-9. PMID: 29116421; PMCID: PMC6215327.