For children with special needs it is possible to have a variety of conditions that vary in severity and prognosis. A highly functioning child with autism, for example, may have one set of unique nutritional problems while a child with severe cerebral palsy will have a very different set of nutritional needs. Consultation with a specialist and a nutritional assessment will determine the correct course of action by evaluating the child’s weight, percentiles, growth over time, daily intake, physiological barriers to good nutrition, social factors and cognitive ability.

The number of diagnosed conditions and syndromes that affect a child’s nutrition are staggering.  Being such a broad topic, it is relevant to point out that children with special needs are more likely to have food allergies and intolerances than children who are typically developing. Children with special health care needs are at increased risk for nutrition-related problems.  Peanut allergies, gluten allergies, dairy and lactose intolerances are only a small example of the severity of nutritional needs that can affect children with different abilities.

Children with special needs may require tube feeding, have Failure to Thrive and be extremely underweight or, in the case of children with Down syndrome, may be prone to gaining weight.  This is a result of low muscle tone, bone problems, and the inability of the body to process nutrients properly.  Each child’s needs are different and require an individual set of nutritional guidelines or approach to follow.  For children with different abilities, metabolic abnormalities affect nutrition and the maintenance of a healthy weight.

A child’s pediatrician or dietician is a good source to determine a child’s individual nutrition needs.

What has been your biggest challenge while navigating the changing nutritional needs of a child with special needs?  Share your experience here:

Amy Bontempo is the Manager of Family and Community Engagement at Penfield Children’s Center.  She supervises the Community Outreach Educator, Volunteer Coordinator, Parent Mentor Program, and Family Programs of which Penfield host over 60 per year.  She has served on the Board of Directors for the Down Syndrome Association (DSAW) of Wisconsin since 2011 and previously served on the Volunteer Respite Committee for Children’s Service Society now part of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services, and the Family Resource Connection of Milwaukee Co.

Bull, Marilyn, J., MD. “Health and Supervision for Children with Down syndrome.” Pediatrics. 25 July 2011. The American Academy of Pediatrics. 14 May 2011. <>

“National Food Service Management Institute.” Handbook for Children with Special Food and Nutrition Needs. 2006. University of Mississippi.

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