As the rates of children with Autism soar, researchers have been looking for any clues to help reduce the behavioral symptoms that accompany the disorder. A quick search on the internet of ‘drug-free’ ways to help kids with the disorder often points to making changes in your child’s diet first.
Removing gluten or casein are the biggest suggestions, as it is widely believed that children with autism have trouble breaking down these two proteins during digestion. As a result, they develop what is known as a leaky gut, which causes physical discomfort and behavioral symptoms. Therefore, removing these problematic proteins from the diet of a child with autism should reduce some of their discomfort.
In an effort to reveal if these theories were correct, the University of Rochester followed a group of children ages 2-5 for 12 weeks who were on a strict GF/CF diet. Then, snack foods containing gluten, casein, both or a placebo that contained neither, were reintroduced into the children’s diet. Tristram Smith, one of the researchers, reported that “the diet was safe” thanks to strict nutritional monitoring, but “no significant changes were found when the children were given snack foods with gluten, casein or both, compared to placebo.”
On the other side, Karl Reichelt of The Univeristy of Oslo in Norway conducted a similar, year-long study in 2002 that showed that implementing a GF/CF diet did have a positive impact on the behavioral symptoms of children with autism.
When asked about the results of the new study he noted that “the design for this [new] experiment was very good, the time on the diet was far too short.” Claiming, “this complex developmental disorder is not usually quickly changed,” any study “not longer than three months is the stuff of fairy tales” and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Smith argues, that even if the trial period was several months or even a year long, “there is no medical reason to expect that prolonging the study would have changed the results.” The study period was based on “the time it takes for symptoms to improve when treating food sensitivities and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as the time it takes for symptoms to come back when foods are reintroduced.”
Currently, there aren’t any official dietary recommendations for individuals on the Autism spectrum. On their site, Autism Speaks asks parents to consult with a dietary counselor such as a nutritionist or dietician to have their diet reviewed to determine whether there is a real risk for nutritional deficiency. A GF/CF diet is safe for children, but parents need to keep in mind that that foods containing gluten and casein are major sources of protein as well as essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D, calcium, and zinc.