Background: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) tend to be selective in their food intake, which may compromise their diet quality. While ASD diagnoses capture severe levels of impairment, autistic traits vary on a continuum throughout the population. Yet, little is known about how autistic traits relate to diet quality at the population level. Objectives: This study examines the association between autistic traits in early childhood and diet quality in mid-childhood and explores the mediating role of food selectivity. Methods: Participants were children (n = 4092) from the population-based Generation R Study. Parents reported their child's autistic traits at 1.5, 3, and 6 years; food selectivity at 4 years; and food intake at 8 years, from which a diet quality score was derived. Associations of autistic traits and the autistic trait trajectory (identified using Latent Class Growth Modelling) with diet quality were examined using multiple linear regression models. The indirect effect of food selectivity in the association between autistic traits at 1.5 years and diet quality was examined using mediation analysis. Results: Autistic traits were associated with diet quality (e.g., 1.5 years: β = -0.09; 95% CI: -0.13 to -0.06). Two classes captured the autistic trait trajectories from 1.5 to 6 years: children with "low and stable"(95%) and "high and increasing"(5%) mean scores. Children in the high and increasing group had poorer diet quality than those in the low and stable group (β = -0.28; 95% CI: -0.44 to -0.11). Food selectivity mediated the association between autistic traits at 1.5 years and diet quality at 8 years (βindirect = -0.03; 95% CI: -0.03 to -0.02). Conclusions: Autistic traits in early childhood are associated with poorer diet quality in mid-childhood, and food selectivity appears to mediate this association. Interventions intended to optimize nutrition in children with elevated autistic traits may integrate behavioral strategies to support parents' responding to their child's food selectivity.
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© 2022 The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Nutrition.