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Can diet affect autism?

Posted May 20 2010 3:14pm
Image: Kristie Baxter

Autism is a baffling condition that has come to the forefront of medical news and research. It is characterized by symptoms which can include difficulties with speech, problems with understanding the feelings of others, sensory and visual misperceptions, anxiety, fear, and behavioural problems. The condition is being increasingly diagnosed without a known cause or cure, leading many families with autistic children to turn to dietary intervention.

The most common diets used to treat autism are the Gluten-free diet and Casein-free diet. The Gluten-free diet is most commonly used for people with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten. Gluten is a protein found in some grains. Some people claim that children with autism are unable to digest grains easily, which can lead to high levels of gluten by-products and affect behaviour. Casein is one of the proteins found in milk and dairy products. A similar idea to the gluten theory makes the casein-free diet increasingly common.

Many parents have reported that these types of dietary interventions have improved behaviour, sleep, activity level and social interactions for their children with autism.

What the science says:

Research in this area is relatively new. Autism Canada reports that some studies have shown gluten- and casein-free diets to reduce symptoms of autism, while others have not. Also, most studies conducted on dietary intervention in autism use both casein and gluten-free diets, so we are unable to determine which dietary intervention (or both) are making the difference. However, most physicians and scientists are skeptical of the “gut-brain” connection. Recently, one tightly-controlled clinical study concluded the diet had no effect on symptoms of autism. However, the study's downfall was the small sample size. Only 14 kids were included in the study, which makes it impossible to draw a firm conclusion (see video below).

There is the possibility that improvements are a result of the “placebo effect”, in which parents see improvement even when there are none because they want so desperately to help their children. Although the science doesn’t currently support dietary therapy for autism, if a family feels it has helped their child and decreased stress on the family, who is science to say otherwise? For them, dietary interventions may hold some hope for a seemingly hopeless condition.

The downside is that these diets are extremely difficult to follow, as gluten and casein can be found in everything from food to pills, and even lipstick. These diets can also be very restrictive and careful planning must be done to ensure children are getting all the nutrition they need for growth and development. Always talk to your doctor or Registered Dietitian before drastically changing your child’s diet, or before taking any supplements.

Autism Society Canada
Defeat Autism Now (DAN)

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