How RDNs Help Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

By Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
Eating Muffins | How RDNs Help Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

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Intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDDs, are lifelong disabilities that begin during childhood. These conditions include mental and/or physical impairments that may impact an individual’s self-direction, mobility and the ability to perform certain basic activities of daily living without assistance. IDDs may also affect learning, comprehension and language skills.

Maintaining good nutritional health can be challenging for individuals with IDDs. For instance, genetic disorders, such as Prader-Willi Syndrome, may lead to weight gain and obesity. In contrast, individuals with Cystic Fibrosis, may struggle to maintain a normal body weight.

There may be limitations during mealtime for both children and adults. Vision problems and difficulty holding utensils can impact the ability of individuals with IDDs to feed themselves. Swallowing problems, digestion problems, food allergies and medications can also impair nutritional status. Oral health problems, such as dry mouth, cavities, gum infections and oral hygiene can also contribute to feeding difficulties.

Some individuals with IDDs may have a partial or total need for nutrition support. These individuals may receive nutrition through a tube inserted into their stomach or abdomen, or a vein in an arm.

How a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Can Help

As part of the health care team, registered dietitian nutritionists, or RDNs, with special training provide patient-centered, culturally competent nutrition counseling in a range of settings. RDNs identify strategies for mealtime support and create menus of acceptable food options to meet special nutrition needs.

Individuals with IDDs may also struggle with other health conditions such as diabetes and obesity. RDNs are skilled in educating patients, family members and caregivers on nutrition needs for these conditions, too.

As RDNs work closely with other members of the medical team, they can also be tremendous patient advocates. Registered dietitian nutritionists can connect patients or their family members and caregivers with community resources to help meet food and nutrition needs.

What to Expect When You Meet with an RDN

The RDN may start by assessing the individuals’ overall health status. During this appointment, the RDN reviews the patient's medical history, including:

  • Diagnoses
  • Lab test results
  • Medicines and supplements
  • Height and weight

The RDN may also ask about:

  • Eating patterns
  • Food preferences
  • Feeding skills
  • Functional abilities
  • Social factors
  • Cultural and religious customs
  • Barriers to buying food
  • Activity level 

Many RDNs perform a Nutrition Focused Physical Exam, which helps them assess the person’s nutritional status and risk for malnutrition. During this exam, the RDN looks for physical signs of nutrient deficiencies.

RDNs may also consult other members of the healthcare team. For example, speech language pathologists and occupational therapists can help determine the need for modifying the texture of foods, special feeding positions, the pace of feeding and discuss ways a caregiver may provide encouragement.

Based on the findings of the assessment, the RDN will work closely with the patient and their caregivers to create a nutrition care plan. The plan may provide recommendations on what, when and how to eat to meet individual nutrition needs. Vitamin and mineral supplements may be recommended to help correct nutrient deficiencies and tips for meeting weekly activity goals may also be discussed.

RDNs may also provide training on food selection and meal prep for individuals with IDDs and their caregivers.

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The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ online database lets you find a registered dietitian nutritionist in your community.

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