Healthism looks at popular diets & supplements for autism. What do recent studies say about the effects of specialized autism diets?
If your child has autism, chances are you’ve heard of special diets that may reduce autistic symptoms. In fact, statistics show that about half of all parents of autistic children try a special diet at some time to help reduce their child’s symptoms. The most popular diet today for improving autistic symptoms is a specialized diet called the gluten-free, casein-free diet, which is gaining popularity at a rapid rate. In fact, some parents report seeing great improvement in their child’s symptoms, including some celebrity parents who have written books on the diet. However, few study results have been able to prove that any certain diet is truly effective for reducing autism symptoms. However, for those who see improvement in symptoms, trying a special diet is well worth the time.
What is Autism?
Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD, is a developmental disorder that affects up to 1 in 150 American children. Autism affects a child’s ability to interact and communicate with other people, including family, friends, teachers and other students. Symptoms of autism may include a delay in learning to talk, not talking at all, repetitious behaviors like rocking back and forth, an unusual fascination with or attachment to a particular object and severe reactions to routine changes. There are mild to severe cases of autism, and the disorder affects children of all ages, ethnicities and economic levels. Diagnosing autism takes time, and doctors usually diagnose autism by assessing certain developmental areas, including:
- Social interactions and relationship skills
- Verbal and nonverbal communication skills
- Limited or no interest in activities
The Gluten-Free, Casein-Free (GFCF) Diet
The gluten-free, casein-free diet is fast becoming a popular form of treatment for children with autism. The diet is based on the idea that gluten and casein can cause food sensitivities and disorders of the intestines that may irritate autism symptoms. This new diet requires that all foods containing gluten and casein be completely removed from the child’s diet, which can be difficult since these two substances are found in many foods. Gluten is an extremely common protein found in foods that are made from wheat, rye and barley. Casein is a protein that is found in milk, milk products and other dairy products. Some doctors, researchers and parents claim that this diet has caused mild to dramatic improvements in some autistic children’s symptoms. Reports also show that some children experience less digestive problems like constipation and diarrhea while on the GFCF diet, which is important because there is growing evidence that autism and gastrointestinal problems may be related. However, more proof is needed to establish the connection.
GFCF Diet: Beneficial or a Hoax
Many different studies have investigated both the pros and cons of the GFCF diet on autism symptoms. Recently, a small study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that out of 14 children who were able to maintain this diet for a four- week period, the following behaviors were observed: No significant effect on sleep, no difference in bowel movements or stool consistency and no significant difference in attention or activity as rated by researchers, parents and teachers. Additional results showed no noticeable differences in social interactions or communications skills. However, there are also studies that prove that this strict diet may be beneficial for some autistic children. In fact, one study found that autistic children are more likely to have abnormal responses to milk, wheat and soy, possibly because of immune reactions to these substances. The study also found that the GFCF diet relieves these immune-related problems in some autistic children, thereby improving the symptoms of autistic disorder.
Helpful Nutrients for Autism
Recent studies show that autistic children lack certain essential nutrients, but have an overly sufficient intake of others, such as vitamin K and E. Important nutrients that they generally lack are potassium, fiber, vitamin D, vitamin E and calcium, most likely because autistic children tend to focus on one certain food and miss out on important nutrients due to ignoring other foods. Many specialists suggest having an autistic child tested for food allergies and sensitivities to rule out food-related disorders that may affect autism symptoms. Even if your child does not test positive for gluten or casein sensitivity, you may want to speak to a dietician or nutritionist about getting the proper nutrition for your autistic child. Autistic children often focus on a particular color or type of food, and a dietician can help you evaluate their nutritional needs for proper growth and development.