Autism Diets Controversy

Anna Kaminsky's picture

by Anna Kaminsky

The "diet can cure autism" claims by many nutritionists and naturopathic doctors didn't slow down after Harvard Mental Health Letter publication, that talks about the factors that may be causing autism and the potential danger behind the so called “autism diets.”

The publication states that,

"Researchers have long disagreed about whether gastrointestinal problems may underlie some symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. This has not stopped some researchers and celebrities from promoting theories and special "autism diets" with no scientific support."


Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are known for poor emotional intelligence skills, they have real difficulty reading facial expressions and behaving according to expected social patterns. Autistic children also often have a set of ritualistic or repetitive behavior patterns: they may tap, band their head or pick compulsively at times, spend hours playing with watches, or be fascinated by texture patterns. An autistic child will also tend to be significantly more sensitive (to touch, light, sound, etc.) than his neuro-typical peers. Temper tantrums are usually very common with a child suffering from ASD’s, and meal time can be a very tense time for the families.

This is where the autism diet comes into play. Once an already picky child’s diet is restricted in the name of going casein and gluten free a nutritional issue may arise. For one, constipation could be induced. The child may also see symptoms like a leaky gut, stomach pain, reflux and bloating just to name some.

The authors of  Harvard Mental Health Letter publication, quote research study by Jennifer Harrison Elder, a Professor at the University of Florida, who examined 15 autistic children for 12 weeks. The results showed that the casein and gluten free diets had no effect on the symptoms or the child’s condition. The paper " Review of The gluten-free, casein-free diet in autism: Results of a preliminary double blind clinical trial" describing results of this study was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2006.

Autism still has no universal theory on its cause or origin. Some professionals say it is a problem with brain development while others argue that it could be a set of disorders much like phenylketonuria. Some have even suggested that autism arises from developmental problems and “irregularities due to inflammation.” Just as these are all only theories, so is the gluten and casein free autism diet and its ability to resolve an autistic child’s condition.

Unfortunately, few clinical trials into the investigation and support of the autism diets are poor at best. However, new evidence does suggest that genetics is the main cause of the autistic children’s leaky guts (or autistic enterocolitis).

The Controversy

There are still quite a few big names pushing the gluten and casein free diet. They firmly believe that the exorphins that are found in these ingredients are ultimately harmful. To support their position, proponents of autism diets, use a well known fact that children with autism spectrum disorders have more gastrointestinal issues than neuro-typical children.

The opponents state that, the "autism diets" have been around for a substantial amount of time now, and the autism rates have only grown in the western world. Statistical data published in 2009 by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows 57% increase in children suffering from ASD over the 4 year period between 2002 and 2006 and 600% increase over the past 20 years.

While, there may not be as much of a connection between casein, gluten and autism as first suspected, though that is not saying some link does not exist. The new joint study by a group of Danish and Norwegian psychologists and nutritionists was published in Nutritional Neuroscience in April 2010 and examined 72 Danish children with ASD for over 8 months. The results may hold possible evidence that the diet actually helped a subset of autistic children.

The results were quoted as follows; "Introducing a gluten-free, casein-free diet had a significant beneficial group effect at 8, 12, and 24 months of intervention on core autistic and related behaviors..."

Improvements start slowly and plateau over time. While more research is needed, this Danish study provides evidence that some autistic children will benefit from the autism diet even though that is not the core issue or the original cause of the autism or its symptoms.

Few people deny the fact is autism is more than just a brain development issue, so we have a lot to learn about the illness before real treatment can be found.

It's not only diet

I am sure diet alone will not help cure autism but it could be a part of multi-modal treatment. Gluten Free/Casein Free diet (GFCG) with fish-oil omega3 supplements complemented by therapeutic listening and speech and sensory integration therapy can be an effective approach to alleviate symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.

Autism and raw foods

I have heard from several parents with autistic children that eating gluten-free as well as eliminating milk protein can be very helpful, but I would also add that more raw foods generally (fruit and veg especially) can be very beneficial. Green smoothies for example are a great way of getting vegs into people who wouldn't eat them otherwise, as I have seen with my own children!

I highly appreciate the

I highly appreciate the efforts of this author to raise awareness regarding nutritional deficiencies. Actually treating our diseases instead of hiding and masking them with drugs or temporarily fixing them with surgeries can benefit us tremendously.
I highly recommend this article to the people who have queries and concerns regarding autism diet and want their questions answered.
Nice work, keep up the good work.

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