Special diets are a popular way to treat autism spectrum disorders (ASD). As many as 38 percent of parents try a special diet in the hopes that their child’s autism symptoms will improve. Special diets are intended to treat either autistic behaviors or gastrointestinal symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder including diarrhea, constipation and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In addition to these symptoms, many children with ASD are also at risk for nutritional deficiencies.
The general principle behind any special diet or supplement for autism is that children with autism are either allergic or oversensitive to components of some foods, or need additional amounts of certain nutrients. By adopting a restricted diet or providing supplemental nutrients, some doctors, researchers and parents believe that they can correct nutritional imbalances that cause or worsen autistic symptoms.
There is no cure for ASD, including special diets. A diet will produce different results in different children; no one diet is best for all individuals with autism.
What does it involve?
Many parents decide to try a special diet or supplements for their child because it is a low-risk effort that may produce positive results. First, it is important to make certain that your child will receive proper, balanced nutrition on any diet you try. Always consult your doctor before making significant changes to your child’s diet. Some doctors support the idea of special diets and supplements for autism spectrum disorders, while others do not. However, your doctor can help you ensure that your child will receive balanced nutrition while on a special diet. You may also choose to consult a nutritionist or dietitian.
The most popular special diet for autism is the gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley and in most products made from these grains. Casein is a protein found in milk and most milk products. Some researchers believe that these substances are not broken down properly by the digestive systems of children with autism. They theorize that autistic symptoms stem in part from a build-up of one or both of these substances, which results in inflammation of the gastrointestinal system.
Both gluten and casein are used as ingredients in many unexpected products, and may not be clearly listed on the label. Apart from avoiding foods that clearly contain one or both substances, such as bread, cake, ice cream, cheese, and pizza, it may become necessary to avoid most mainstream processed foods. You may need to make frequent calls to food manufacturers and restaurants to ask about hidden ingredients. If your child eats meals at school, you will need to discuss their diet with their school administration. When eating out at restaurants or attending social functions, you may need to prepare suitable foods in advance for your child and bring them along. In order to strictly follow the GFCF diet, even non-food products such as glue, medicine, toy clay and putty, stamp adhesive, and lotions used by caregivers must be free from casein and gluten.
Trying a new diet for two or three months should give you a clear idea of whether or not it is helping your child. Keep a daily record what your child eats and how they feel and behave in order to track changes. If you find a diet that works for your child, it is up to you how long to continue it. You may try incorporating one restricted food for a while and see if your child’s condition worsens to decide whether or not it is necessary to continue avoiding that food.
Some doctors and researchers think that autistic symptoms are caused or exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies, and recommend dietary supplements to correct the problem. You may also consider having your child tested for nutritional deficiencies to find out whether they would benefit from receiving supplements. If you choose to start giving your child a nutritional supplement, consult your doctor for the correct dosage. Many nutrients can be toxic in high doses.
You may consider having your child tested for food allergies, lactose intolerance or celiac disease. These tests can help pinpoint which foods to avoid to keep your child their healthiest. Another way to find out which foods cause trouble for your child is to use an elimination diet. In an elimination diet, you avoid all common allergens and problematic foods completely for a period, usually one month, then slowly reintroduce them one at a time. During this process, you keep a record of what your child eats and how they feel and behave. Elimination diets can provide valuable cues about which foods to avoid.
In general, many doctors recommend a diet as natural and minimally processed as possible for children with ASD. Whenever possible, choose organic foods free of pesticides, dyes or preservatives. These types of foods are easiest to digest since they do not contain harmful chemicals that the body must filter out.
The goal of special diets and nutritional supplements is to keep your child their healthiest, optimize their nutrition, and treat autistic symptoms such as disruptive behavior, communication problems and gastrointestinal issues.
There are many anecdotal reports from parents of improvements in speech and behavior in children after beginning the GFCF diet. However, current clinical research is inconclusive on whether this diet is truly effective in treating ASD symptoms, or whether it is only effective for certain children. Further studies are underway.
Some supplements, including a daily comprehensive multivitamin and nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, and vitamin B-6 taken with magnesium, have shown promise in improving the health or behavior of some autistic children.
Many other supplements have produced mixed results during clinical tests for treatment of ASD, or have not yet been tested in clinical studies.
If your current doctor does not support trying a special diet, you may decide to switch doctors to find one who does.
In avoiding certain foods, your child will lose valuable sources of certain nutrients. For instance, dairy products are rich sources of calcium. You will need to consult a doctor, a nutritionist, or a reputable expert source to make sure that your child is getting enough of these nutrients from other sources. Some alternative sources, such as soy, are also common allergens.
Purchasing organic produce and meat or specialty foods such as alternative flours or prepared GF products can be expensive.
Preparing more foods from scratch can be time-consuming.
Your child’s school may be unwilling or unable to provide meals that comply with the diet you have chosen.
Going out to restaurants and attending parties can become more challenging.
You may have to deal with many questions from friends, family and strangers about your child’s special diet.