The Atkins Diet. Weight Watchers. Paleo. Coconut oil. Gluten Free. Casein Free. You may be familiar with some of these diet trends. People are constantly on a quest for the perfect diet that will shed the pounds and keep them off. Others are looking for diets that regulate their digestive systems and keep their stomach calm. And if you are a parent of a child with autism, you may have heard people maintain that a gluten-free or casein-free diet can be used to help manage behaviors associated with autism.
With the idea of placing a child on a diet for management of symptoms, many questions arise. Does a gluten-free diet make a difference for children with autism? What does the research say? How do you know if it’s working?
Let’s back up a little bit and look at why specific diets for children with autism are being considered. Gastrointestinal problems are often described in children with autism, however the prevalence of these issues has not been consistently proven to be higher than in the general population.
Unfortunately for the sake of determining benefits of a gluten free diet, every child with autism presents differently and will likely have different responses to dieting. Also, unfortunately, the literature is extremely limited and providing conclusive evidence that a specific diet improves behaviors associated with autism has yet to be done. Some studies have yielded positive results (improvements in symptoms), while others have yielded negative results (no improvements noted). It is important to note that none of these studies have provided conclusive evidence; studies reporting positive results were merely suggestive (the lowest level of certainty).
Now you may be thinking, what will it hurt to place my child on a gluten-free or casein-free diet? According to Mulloy et. al, these diets may put children at risk for nutritional deficiencies. Further, this population of children often encounters challenges to ingesting a typical diet to begin with, such as sensory processing difficulties that lead to limited food intake and restricted diets. This can make feeding your child difficult if they are already only accepting chicken nuggets and string cheese. Additionally, implementing a diet of this type is costly and time-consuming.
Should you decide to try a gluten-free diet for your child with autism, here are some important things to remember:
- Keep objective measures: It will likely be hard for your child to accurately report how they feel given commonly associated language deficits in children with autism. Ask yourself, “How do I know that my child’s sleep is improved?”, or “How do I know that attention is improved?” Find a way to measure data for these questions, such as counting naps taken each day or minutes spent engaged in a task.
- Involve others: Ask for help from people that spend a lot of time with your child. Ask them to objectively measure behaviors as best they can, and seek their results.
- Keep a food diary: Track what your child eats for every meal, and any notable behaviors or improvements for each day. This ensures accurate implementation of the diet and gives you the ability to reflect on the weeks and months.
- Be committed: In a systematic review, more positive results were yielded with longer implementation of the diet. For example, studies yielding negative results were implemented for an average of 5 weeks while studies yielding positive results were implemented for an average of 18 months.
- Keep other factors in mind: It is challenging to prove that improvement is due to one factor vs another. For example: If your child experiences improved sleeping patterns, perhaps eliminating sugary foods in general is the cause as opposed to the removal of gluten. Always think twice before determining cause, and consider all potential variables at play.
If you are exploring diet options for your child, seek the guidance of a dietitian or nutritionist to ensure healthy implementation.
NSPT offers services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!
- Mulloy, A, et al. Gluten-free and casein-free diets in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (2009), doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2009.10.008
- Buie, T. (2013). The relationship of autism and gluten. Clinical Therapeutics, 35, 578-583.