An article about autism in the Globe and Mail says it all with just one headline: Science disputes autism’s diet link*. This one headline conveys that there may be a connection between diet and autism, and that some scientists have rejected the idea. (*Note: no link to article, because it’s free availability on the web is short-lived).
The Globe article features Tina Szenasi, a mother of three boys in Barrie, Ontario. The article implies that all three of her children are autistic. According the the article, her sons improved within weeks of starting an elimination diet – a reasonable time frame to expect.
Many parents with autistic children feel that by changing their child’s diet (specifically, eliminating wheat and milk, the GFCF diet), they can notice a difference in their child’s behaviour. Results reported by parents and teachers seem to vary from subtle to dramatic.
“Farfetched” a doctor in the article is quoted as saying. But are trained to recognize symptoms that can be masked or eliminated by surgery or a prescription. Many doctors are weak on nutrition, and prevention in general.
Effectiveness of the GFCF diet
Reports on the effectiveness of the GFCF diet come overwhelmingly from testimonials of individual parents or teachers. Reported results range from reports that the diet has no discernible effect to claims of complete recovery following implementation of a gluten-free casein-free regimen. A more common report suggests that removing casein and gluten from an autistic child’s diet increases eye contact, attention span, and general mood while decreasing problems like tantrums, self-stimulatory behaviour (or ‘stimming’) (such as hand-flapping and rocking) and aggression.
Results of controlled studies and clinical trials are less clear-cut. A small single-blind study has documented fewer autistic behaviours in children fed a gluten-free, casein-free diet but noted no change cognitive skills, linguistic ability or motor ability. This study has been criticized by medical practitioners for its small sample size, single-blind design (which may skew results on the basis of a “parent placebo effect”), and other unspecified design flaws.
A 2006 double-blind short-term study found no significant differences in behavior between children on a gluten-free, casein-free diet and those on regular diets. The study draws no certain conclusions, but suggests practices and methods for a well-designed long-term study to correct perceived flaws in previous work. A long term double-blind clinical trial sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health is scheduled for completion in April 2008; preliminary results are not yet available.
Since an elimination diet does not make money for either the medical industry, or the pharmaceutical industry, there is little incentive to recommend eliminating wheat or milk from an autistic child’s diet, or to study it in detail (given that most medical research these days seems to be funded by the profit-making medical industry).
According to the article, “most mainstream scientists remain sceptical of the gut-brain connection in autism”. Most scientists of course, do not study such a connection, so it is a little hard to understand what this statement means, other than the newspaper shying away from the anecdotal evidence supplied by parents.
The article mentions one study, published in March 2006 in the the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders which is unable to find a “significant” improvement for children on the GFCF diet. It would be helpful to know what their definition of significant is, and for how long the children remained on the elimination diet.
It is also possible that autism is a complicated disease with more than one cause, depending on the child. A small study would see this as “noise”, but if wheat and milk really are responsible for autism in some cases, and your child is one of them, the diet just may work for you.
Meanwhile, there is an industry at the fringes, capitalizing on the possible dietary link between wheat/milk and autism. From specialty foods to specialty tests, there is an economic interest to suggesting an elimination diet. Not all businesses seeking to capitalize on the “autistic market” are necessarily credible, ethical or legitimate. It is a case of “buyer beware”.
But do you really have to spend big money on an elimination diet? No. If you avoid prepared foods and cook from basic ingredients, there is no need to consume large quantities of speciality foods. This does take time of course.
Eliminating wheat and milk from anyone’s diet, child or adult, is not harmful. The foods you eat instead of wheat and milk could even be more healthy than what they replaced, if you choose carefully (see wheat alternatives).
If an elimination diet has a noticeable effect on your child’s health, then it is worth the effort. If it does not make a difference after a couple of months, you can drop it.
Eliminating wheat and milk from your child’s diet is a low-risk experiment. It is also non-medical, so don’t be dissuaded by your doctor.
It is also possible that in some cases, an autistic child could have more than one problem. Why not autism and a food allergy, making the autism worse?
While not autistic, I am here to tell you from personal experience, that an elimination diet can, in some cases make a huge difference to mood, behaviour, attention span, concentration, sleeping patterns, digestive function, and a whole host of other effects.
Don’t get your hopes up. This diet may not work for your child. But by all means try it, and see if it does.
A link to the March 2006 study on diet and autism in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders would be very useful. If you are aware of such a link, please leave a comment!
- [article removed from target website] This doctor doesn’t seem to think so. This is based on a lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of the diet, but it seems that there is little official research to draw on. His argument that many affected children are selective eaters, and that eliminating gluten would reduce the number of foods that a child regularly eats is fallacious in my opinion. People with food allergies often crave the foods they are allergic too for a start. And if an elimination diet cured the symptoms, then presumably the child will stop being such a picky eater.
- Gluten-free, casein-free diet (Wikipedia)
- Autism (Wikipedia)
- Elimination diet (this website)
Comments supporting or disputing the content of this article are welcome, as are questions. Links to useful sites on autism also appreciated.