Autism and Nutrition: Where To Start?

Autism and Nutrition: Where To Start?

Mental Health Gut Article

It can be overwhelming and challenging having a child on the Autism Spectrum. As parents it can be hard to see your child struggle with communication and behaviour challenges, difficulties socially interacting with their peers, and/or the ability to concentrate and focus in school. 

Meal times can be especially stressful if your child is picky and refuses to eat; sometimes limiting their foods to just a couple of different items. Then you go and see a health professional, and they may recommend you remove certain triggers, thereby  restricting their food intake even more…aaarrgh!!

So, where do you start? 

First, let’s backtrack a bit and explore what causes Autism…

What Causes Autism?

Autism is a neurological condition where body chemistry influences brain chemistry. Diet and nutrition are the building blocks that affect this biochemistry. 

There is not one single cause of autism. In fact, there are quite a number of different reasons that your child may present with the symptoms or behaviours that they do. 

Autistic people have a higher likelihood of having problems with detoxification in relation to environmental pollutants; artificial colourings, flavourings, and other additives in foods (which are so common in a North American diet); and/or a decreased ability to detoxify the body of these. This can be due to a compromised immune system from gut inflammation, food allergies and intolerances, invading gut pathogens, microflora imbalances, or digestive issues such as “leaky gut”. This could also be due to oxidative stress, or differences in certain chemical pathways in the body, such as methylation and sulfation. 

The above potential variance in detoxification and metabolism in people with autism are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innate biochemical differences that may be present. That is one reason why having a key focus on determining which underlying cause or causes (as often it can be more than one) there are for your child’s symptoms and behaviours.

So, where to begin?

Often, the first step is to determine underlying triggers, which may mean having blood work or other laboratory testing completed by a health professional that is specialized in autism.

Laboratory testing done by an autism specialist, such as an experienced Naturopathic Doctor, can provide valuable information including identifying nutrient deficiencies, food allergies and intolerances, gut issues, microbiome imbalances, immune problems and biological differences with certain biochemical pathways. 

As Nutritionists we can then help create strategies for your day-to-day life, in a hands-on way, that assist in the implementation of recommendations made by your Naturopathic Doctor or Functional Medicine Practitioner after testing. We have experience collaborating with other specialists to support the overall treatment plan required. Of course, we’re happy to offer our food or nutrient specific expertise as well!

What happens after lab tests have identified underlying issue(s)?

There are many potential options that would be evaluated on an individual basis including:

  • Supplement recommendations, as nutrient deficiencies are common due to several factors including poor diets (from being picky eaters) and imbalanced digestive systems affecting the ability to break down and absorb food. 
  • A specialized diet may be recommended for your child. Making dietary changes can promote systemic healing and help improve mood, learning and behaviour. We recognize that dietary changes in itself come with their own set of challenges.

Autism and Special Diets

Gluten and Dairy Free Diets

There is an abundance of diets that have been shown to help children with Autism. The most common and ideal starting point is going gluten and dairy free, as so many children on the spectrum are often sensitive to the proteins gluten and casein. 

In fact, a AIR Survey of parent ratings on treatment success of implementing a gluten and dairy free diet with kids on the spectrum showed that 55% of children experienced improvements on a casein free diet (based on 6950 children), 55% experienced improvements on a wheat free diet (based on 4340 children), and 69% of children experienced improvements on the combined casein and gluten free diet (based on 3593 children). It was also found that children experienced improvements on a casein free diet within a month, and that it took 1-3 months of elimination to see improvements on a gluten free diet. 

Implementing a gluten and dairy free diet can be challenging. But, working with an experienced Nutritionist to help guide you on your child’s journey through these changes can be very helpful. 

Why are gluten and casein so harmful for children with autism?

As mentioned above many children have problems with gluten and casein due to food sensitivities (IgG, IgM, IgA) or food allergies (IgE). They may lack the DPP-IV enzyme (the enzymes that helps to breakdown gluten and casein in the body) or lack digestive abilities to break down the gluten and casein proteins and absorb them. Unfortunately, these proteins can create an opioid-like response in the brain, similar to a drug addiction. If your child craves breads and dairy it may be part of that opioid-like response, where their addiction is so strong they refuse to eat other food groups, resulting in being a very picky eater. 

Gluten can create gastrointestinal inflammation and damage to the intestines resulting in “leaky gut” (or intestinal permeability, if you want to get fancy). Enzymes are diminished and nutrients are not absorbed properly leading to nutrient deficiencies which will affect mood, behaviour and cognition. This process leads to systemic inflammation, which taxes the immune system, and may result in autoimmune responses. Gluten issues and inflammation can cause depression, anxiety, and ADHD symptoms.

It is important to understand that if you implement a gluten-free, casein-free (GF, CF) diet that a child may experience a worsening of symptoms initially, due to the opioid-like withdrawal effect of removing these foods (proteins) from the diet, before they experience improvement.

Food Addictions & Autism

As mentioned above, one of the reasons why so many autistic people are picky eaters is because of food addiction. When the individual gets a “high” from a problematic food (which has shown to be similar to morphine), it can be so strong that they refuse to eat other foods and food groups. This is one reason why you may notice kids on the spectrum gravitating to food such as cheese and bread, but it could be anything. 

Symptoms and signs of a food addiction include:

  • Addicted and crave certain foods to the point that they can have temper tantrums if they don’t get it
  • High pain tolerance
  • Inattention and spacey behaviour
  • Aggression (to self and others)
  • Stimming
  • Mood changes
  • Poor eye contact
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Anxiety, depression and irritability 

Other Special Autism Diets

Although the GF,CF diet is a great starting point, there are many more diets that have been proven to be effective with improving day-to-day life and the health of kids on the spectrum. Based on laboratory test results you might be asked to explore one of the following diets or a combination of them including: 

Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), GAPS Diet, low FODMAP diet, low phenols diet, low oxalate diet, low salicylate diet, ketogenic diet, paleo diet, low carbohydrate diet, candida diet, Failsafe diet, Feingold diet, Body Ecology diet, or a diet to support methylation and sulfation.

Do special diets for autism really work?

It is important to understand the goal of the diet, how to begin, and then progress from there with implementation of the special diet to help ensure the effectiveness of it. And although it might seem intimidating and overwhelming, it can be worth it! 

Based on surveys of parents with children on the spectrum that have implemented a special diet, they have reported the following improvements:

  • Gastrointestinal problems relieved
  • Diarrhea & constipation lessens/resolves
  • Improved language skills and learning
  • Greater focus and attention
  • Reduced hyperactivity
  • Improved eye contact
  • More appropriate behaviour
  • Aggressive behaviour and tantrums improve
  • Better sleeping
  • Easier toilet training
  • Skin rashes or eczema clear up
  • General health & happiness has improved

How to implement a special diet?

We highly recommend being supported by a qualified dietitian or nutritionist with specific experience addressing autism. It is likely they will work together with a Naturopathic Doctor to complete laboratory testing. Having someone to guide the foods to have and avoid in a way that is practical for your family is key. Having someone to turn to for recipes and ideas that are kid friendly, as well as strategies on how to introduce new foods, especially if your child is a picky eater is very important. Having a professional to work with will help take out the guesswork and stress off you to enable a successful outcome for your child. 

Remember you don’t have to do it alone. We know how challenging and overwhelming dietary and lifestyle change can be. But, it’s worth it!