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Currently, there is insufficient evidence to support instituting a gluten-free diet as a treatment for autism.

Posted May 23 2013 1:28am

Perhaps the most commonly cited alternative therapy approach for autism is the gluten free/casein free diet. The idea was promoted largely based on the “leaky gut” and “opiod excess” idea of autism. The basic idea was that the intestines of autistics are for some reason “leaky” and incompletely digested proteins from gluten (grains) and casein (milk) enter the bloodstream and act much like an opiod (drug) causing (somehow) autism. Multiple research teams have looked for evidence of these “opiods” without success. But the idea that eliminating gluten and/or casein as an autism treatment.

Timothy Buie is perhaps one of the most respected gastroenterologists in the autism communities. He has recently written a literature review on the topic: The relationship of autism and gluten.

Here is the abstract:


Autism is now a common condition with a prevalence of 1 in 88 children. There is no known etiology. Speculation about possible treatments for autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has included the use of various dietary interventions, including a gluten-free diet.


The goal of this article was to review the literature available evaluating the use of gluten-free diets in patients with autism to determine if diet should be instituted as a treatment.


A literature review was performed, identifying previously published studies in which a gluten-free diet was instituted as an autism treatment. These studies were not limited to randomized controlled trials because only 1 article was available that used a double-blind crossover design. Most publish reports were unblinded, observational studies.


In the only double-blind, crossover study, no benefit of a gluten-free diet was identified. Several other studies did report benefit from gluten-free diet. Controlling for observer bias and what may have represented unrelated progress over time in these studies is not possible. There are many barriers to evaluating treatment benefits for patients with autism. Gluten sensitivity may present in a variety of ways, including gastrointestinal and neurologic symptoms. Although making a diagnosis of celiac disease is easier with new serology and genetic testing, a large number of gluten-sensitive patients do not have celiac disease. Testing to confirm non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not available.


A variety of symptoms may be present with gluten sensitivity. Currently, there is insufficient evidence to support instituting a gluten-free diet as a treatment for autism. There may be a subgroup of patients who might benefit from a gluten-free diet, but the symptom or testing profile of these candidates remains unclear.

To paraphrase the conclusions: The evidence is not there for eliminating gluten from the diets of autistics. Perhaps some minority has a gluten sensitivity but so far there is no good test for this possible subgroup.

By Matt Carey

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