Pica, Autism, and Other Disabilities

Pediatrics. 2021 Feb;147(2):e20200462. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-0462. Epub 2021 Jan 6.


Background and objectives: Pica, the repeated ingestion of nonfood items, can be life-threatening. Although case reports describe pica in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (ID), there has been little systematic study of pica prevalence. We assessed pica in children 30 to 68 months of age (median = 55.4 months) with and without ASD.

Methods: Our sample from the Study to Explore Early Development, a multisite case-control study, included children with ASD (n = 1426), children with other developmental disabilities (DDs) (n = 1735), and general population-based controls (POPs) (n = 1578). We subdivided the ASD group according to whether children had ID and the DD group according to whether they had ID and/or some ASD characteristics. Standardized developmental assessments and/or questionnaires were used to define final study groups, subgroups, and pica. We examined pica prevalence in each group and compared ASD and DD groups and subgroups to the POP group using prevalence ratios adjusted for sociodemographic factors.

Results: Compared with the prevalence of pica among POPs (3.5%), pica was higher in children with ASD (23.2%) and DD (8.4%), and in the following subgroups: ASD with ID (28.1%), ASD without ID (14.0%), DD with ID (9.7%), DD with ASD characteristics (12.0%), and DD with both ID and ASD characteristics (26.3%); however, pica prevalence was not elevated in children with DD with neither ID nor ASD characteristics (3.2%). Between-group differences remained after adjustment (adjusted prevalence ratio range 1.9-8.0, all P <.05).

Conclusions: Pica may be common in young children with ASD, ASD characteristics, and ID. These findings inform the specialized health care needs of these children.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child, Preschool
  • Developmental Disabilities / diagnosis
  • Developmental Disabilities / epidemiology
  • Developmental Disabilities / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability / diagnosis*
  • Intellectual Disability / epidemiology*
  • Intellectual Disability / psychology
  • Male
  • Pica / diagnosis*
  • Pica / epidemiology*
  • Pica / psychology
  • Young Adult