Autism is not just one disease – but as explained in KidsHealth.org, autism is a term used to describe a wide range of developmental disorders – those affected may be born with the disorder, or develop it – early in life. The group of disorders is known as a spectrum – and someone who falls within the spectrum has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The majority (60%) of those with ASD have intellectual disabilities – they may range from mild to severe. But 40% may have average or even above-average intelligence. The cause of autism is unknown, although there is some evidence of a genetic link, and environmental factors are being studied too.
Lately there’s been a lot of buzz about how diet might impact or worsen symptoms of autism. For example, as reported in The Atlantic, celebrity anti-vaccine advocate Jenny McCarthy claimed that she’d “cured” her son of autism (supposed a result of adolescent vaccinations) with gluten free diet and supplements. But she then admitted that her son never had autism – but refuses to back off the claim that gluten caused his disease and symptoms.
So, gluten is a very popular whipping boy for all kinds of symptoms…not only autism but to cure all sorts of ills, blaming gluten for causing stress, obesity, headaches, and arthritis, just to name a few.
No doubt, some must avoid gluten due to an allergy – or intolerance. But experts say that only about 1 in 100 people have one of the three main clinical problems made worse from eating gluten – the complex of proteins found in wheat, rye and barley.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease – if the sufferer eats gluten the small intestine is damaged. A true wheat allergy sufferer will react with what’s similar to a reaction to peanuts or cats – wheezing, hives, and possibly life-threatening anaphylaxis. Gluten intolerance (wheat or gluten sensitivity) is more difficult to define – the other two conditions may be tested for – rather, intolerance is self-reported – people may say they “feel better” without eating foods with gluten – and that may be true – but there are not credible studies to either prove – or disprove the intolerance.
If someone has celiac disease or wheat allergy, there is one “cure” – and that is complete avoidance of any foods that contain gluten – even a small trace can trigger a response. And gluten is present in oh, so many foods! It’s added to sauces, to frozen foods – beer, made from barley, is a no-no…breads, cookies, crackers and cakes…flavored coffees and teas, soups, cereals…even some medications include gluten in their inactive ingredients. Read more here from WebMD.com
Experts in autism note that between 30% and 80% of autistic kids have gastrointestinal symptoms – diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and pain – but the consensus is that there’s more than one reason – it could be due to food allergies, or metabolic abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies or it could be because of overuse of antibiotics that may have been prescribed for respiratory problems or ear infections.
Parents, often desperate to help their kids get better, place them on elimination diets – popular diets include gluten-free, as well as eliminating all casein (dairy). Although there is lots of anecdotal evidence, there are no peer-reviewed studies that confirm this works. In fact, a well-designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled four-month study of 14 preschoolers with autism found that a strict gluten-and-casein-free diet didn’t show any benefits compared to a control diet including gluten and dairy.
That’s not to say that kids with autism wouldn’t benefit from working with a qualified dietitian who specializes in working with kids with autism. Just eliminating entire groups of foods isn’t a good idea – and should work with a professional registered dietitian to avoid creating nutritional deficiencies. Some research has linked certain food dyes to behavioral disorders so read labels carefully to avoid- read more here.
There is ongoing research that points to improvement by reducing GI symptoms by avoiding refined carbohydrates and including certain beneficial fats and adequate protein. Read more here.