If you start to delve into the massive amount of information available on dietary restrictions for your autistic child, you might initially be overwhelmed. How can you determine what should be eliminated from your child’s diet, and what shouldn’t? Or is diet even a factor you should be concerned with? All over the internet, you’ll find testimonials from parents who have eliminated one substance or another (or several) and observed marked improvement in their son or daughter’s behaviors. But are these parents only seeing what they want to see? Will dietary restrictions really help your child? It’s hard to know where (or whether) to begin.
In this blog, we’ll look at the gluten-free and/or casein-free diets, in very simple terms.
What is gluten? Gluten is a particular type of protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. So you’d find it in most breads and cereals. It helps make bread elastic and gives it an absorbent quality. It also allows dough to rise properly and helps bread maintain its shape.
What is casein? Casein is another type of protein, found in cheese and milk, and other dairy products. It’s a salt of calcium, and has several interesting properties including the ability to act as a binding agent. This makes it very prevalent in numerous kinds of foods. Sometimes soy milks and specialized milks which claim to be “lactose-free” may still contain casein.
Why do some suggest that autistic children should have these proteins removed from their diets? Foods which contain gluten or casein have peptides, which are opiate-like particles. In average people, these peptides are digested in the GI tract and then absorbed into the bloodstream. But it has been theorized that people with autism have faulty gastro-intestinal systems and problems with nutrient absorption. So, some of these peptides can escape into their bloodstreams without being digested properly. These peptides can then attach themselves to receptors in the brain and elsewhere in the body. Thus, neurotransmitters are disrupted. Some say it can have an affect which is similar to morphine or other opiates. Imagine if you gave a typical child morphine every day of his life. He might act spaced out, confused, and have problems with sensory integration. He might get agitated more easily or be lost in his own daydreams. He might not feel pain as readily and might have trouble connecting with the real world. These kinds of symptoms are hallmarks of autism.
How do I know whether I should try a restrictive diet on my child?
There are several things you should understand:
- First, this is a lifelong commitment, which will affect not only your child but your entire family. It’s difficult to prepare separate meals for your autistic child day after day—and it can be time consuming and expensive. You’ll probably have to find ways to incorporate the diet into your family’s lives. Eliminating gluten or casein from the diet is tough. These proteins are found so commonly in foods that it’s likely you will have to buy specialty products and shop at specialty stores. You’ll have to be an avid label-reader and become very familiar with the kinds of foods you’ll need to avoid.
- You’ve got to do your research. Don’t start your child on a diet until you have done your homework. You’ve got to know exactly why you are making this change and what improvements you hope to see. You must be willing to make slight modifications or even abandon the diet if there are significant adverse effects. However, be aware that it’s likely your child will go through withdrawals just like an opium addict might. Your son or daughter’s behaviors might worsen at first, or you might initially see new behaviors you haven’t before. Those who recommend these diets say that these episodes will eventually disappear and the child will improve.
- You will need to work closely with a doctor who specializes in the treatment of autism and/or a nutritionist. Sometimes when parents put children on their own diet, they unknowingly starve their child of essential nutrients, which only exacerbates problems or creates new ones. You’ll want to supplement the child’s diet with important vitamins and minerals. This takes a great deal of knowledge which, in my opinion, necessitates consulting with an expert.
In a previous blog, I wrote about a man I met at a writer’s conference, who told me very pointedly, “I used to be autistic.” I was skeptical of his story because I believe part of me is still programmed to believe that autism is an incurable condition. He said that as a child he had all the classic symptoms of autism, including staring at television static and having trouble with language, refusing to make eye-contact, etc. His parents put him on a gluten-free diet. “It changed my life,” he said.
Dr. Bryan Jepson, considered an expert in the treatment of autism, has said, “My experience has been that a trial of a strict gluten-free and casein-free diet for a minimum of several months is an important early intervention in the treatment of the disease.” It must be noted, however, that the GFCF diet is still considered experimental, and we don’t have sufficient data to declare it as beneficial.
Whether or not you’ll want to make dietary changes for your child is ultimately up to you—the parent. You know your child better than anyone else, and you are your child’s best advocate.
Readers, what are YOUR experiences with making dietary changes for your autistic child?
Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.
Links to Information about Gluten and Casein Free Diets: