Sticking to a diet or exercise regime to manage health is a challenge for anyone. But a team of researchers has found that maintaining a healthy weight may present unique challenges for young adults with inherent barriers such as cognitive impairment.
An international study led by the University of Cincinnati (UC) found that young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disabilities (ID) were able to lose or maintain their weight with a system of education and support in place.
“It was a wonderful experience to work with the young adults and see them be empowered to select their health goals,” said lead author Professor Laura Nabors.
According to the study, young adults with intellectual disabilities such as ASD and ID are at risk of being overweight or obese and may face higher levels of health risks for cardiovascular disease, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems and type 2 diabetes.
Lessons added value
Nabors and her team oversaw a nutrition and exercise instructional programme that involved 17 participants and their guardians. Over the course of a year, the team and participants met weekly and were provided lessons on healthy eating and exercise.
The lessons focused on the food, portion sizes, vitamins and minerals in foods and learning to eat less from unhealthy food groups.
Exercise lessons featured information about the importance of exercise, introduction to different types of exercise and knowledge about how exercise benefits the body.
The results, published in Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, were that two participants lost a significant amount of weight and others maintained their weight during the study. Participants and parents were satisfied with the programme and reported knowledge and behaviour change.
Meeting with the participants and parents and gaining their support, Nabors says, also provided knowledge for the team and helped to involve UC students in goal selection and achievement of goals selected by participants.
“Not every week was positive. Some individuals struggled to communicate with us and/or their guardians. Just like every person, we have our good days and bad days,” notes study co-author Abby Overstreet.
As part of the study team, Overstreet helped create the weekly lessons and followed up with the individuals to check their progress. “Making changes to be healthier is a challenge for anyone, but with a little encouragement, they would eventually complete their goals,” says Overstreet, now a senior.
“Young adults, in this case those with ASD and ID, are more likely to get healthy if they are able to eat healthy foods they like and exercise in ways they enjoy,” says Kara Ayers, PhD, associate director of UC’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and a researcher with Cincinnati Children’s Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Co-author Christina Carnahan, PhD, an associate professor of special education in the UC School of Education, worked with the team on how best to communicate the weekly lessons to individuals with intellectual disabilites.
“Dr Carnahan’s guidance on communication strategies was invaluable, ensuring health messages reached our audience,” says Nabors.
While the findings are preliminary, and research using control groups and assessing change in weight and behaviours over time are needed, the team concluded that intervention, overall, resulted in improved knowledge and health behaviours.