Link Between Autism and Diet | Allergy

Is There a Link Between Autism and Diet?

by Allergy Guy

autism ribbonAn 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.

Good luck!

Link Request

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!

More Links

  • [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.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amy Aponte July 10, 2008 at 11:13

Allergies, Doctors, and Science

I was doing some research for a paper I am writing when I came across this page. First of all I would like to say – trust Mom, not the doctor!

Here is why I make this statement. I was very ill at one time and this included severe weight gain, joint pain, mood swings, depression, runny nose, weepy eyes, foggy thinking, and the sudden onset of a horrible rash. I called my physician about the rash and he told me (over the phone – without examining me) that I had chicken pox. When that turned out to be false he then sent me to a dermatologist who said I had scabies. When this turned out to be inaccurate, that doctor then sent me to an allergist who tested me for every possible type of allergy. These tests all came back negative, including the Celiacs test (which by the way, I found out later the physician did not administer properly.) So, when all of these physicians could not figure out what was wrong with me, they decided it was all in my head and that I need a psychiatrist. I am still confused to this day how a rash on the exterior of my body could be considered “in my head” but hey, who am I?

Like so many of the wonderful Moms here have done for their children, I took charge of the cure myself. I eliminated all possible food allergens from my diet. Guess what happened. I lost weight (40 lbs. to be exact), my rash cleared up, my joint pain went away, my depression disappeared, and I felt like a new human being! An added bonus to all of this, I never get sick anymore! Everyone around me catches the flu, but not me! I love this part especially! Probably because my immune system is now free to fight bacteria and virus instead of the invading allergens. I now attend college full-time, work full-time, and homeschool my child. I feel like superwoman. I think the part that I like best is how I feel emotionally. I am always in a positive mood. I know the minute that I inadvertently ingest something I am allergic to because the depression is the first thing to hit me.

I now keep my whole family on a very healthy, well-balanced, and organic diet. I have noticed that since switching to organics that I do not eat as much food, nor am I hungry as often as I was prior to organics.

I hope this story is helpful to someone, for that is why I have shared it.


2 Suzanne February 26, 2011 at 19:09

When you eliminated foods from your diet which foods did you include? And have you been able to reintroduce any of those foods successfully?
I enjoyed reading your storey and remember you know you body best .


3 admin September 28, 2007 at 10:13

I’d love to hear more about your experience with the Autism Diet

Thank you for posting your story here, Lisa.
I am glad to hear that you are having some success with your approach to your daughter’s autism. It sounds like you are really helping her to develop as a person.
The title of your comment is “starting the autism diet” – please share more about where you are with that, and feel free to post as time goes on so that others can learn about how much the diet helps and how you are getting on with it.
Best, of luck!


4 lisa September 28, 2007 at 01:18

starting the autism diet

Hi my daughter is 7 years old, she has autism and has been in an IBI (intensive behavioral intervention programmed for 3 years. She left the programmed this September and is now attending school full time in a contained class.

She is so unhappy there and she has been isolated from the other students I know it breaks her heart as it also breaks mine to see her isolated. the teacher said its because she does not want her to hurt the other kids.

My daughter is different when she is with me she is quite calm, and quite aggressive with others and her birth mother. (we are in a same sex relationship) Although she is not mine biologically we seem to have a very strong connection even the professionals say so. Her bio mother has a history of mental illness, depression and bipolar, my daughter’s father abuse drugs, my daughter has a half sister same father but she does not have autism.

My daughter can no longer stay in her contained class because they simply don’t have the staff to support her and now we have to move her to another school that can better accommodate her needs. She is some what verbal, has always had excellent eye contact, and now orders her own meals in the restaurant of her choice. . She loves to play golf, swim, and she repeats a lot. She imitates very well which I believe is an asset for her. She handle been off her routine ,well as a matter of fact I’ve never allowed her to be on any sort of routine. When her bio mother wanter to keep her in the “autistic world” I took her out of it and change her routine up now she adapts to sudden change.

i guess the reason why I am telling you this is because I’ve personally worked very hard to help her especially now in her formative years it breaks my heart when i here that parents have now put their 5 year old child in a home they need to work with that child and give them a running start. I am now making my daughter choose what she would like for lunch, dinner, breakfast.. and so on…

I teach her about nature, banking, yes I said banking they need to start knowing these things so it will always be a part of their lives. she helps me do laundry, and we practice a lot of life skills. We watch music videos and as a result of that she started talking, and dancing, and even in the car she tell me to change a station if she does not like the song. We go to the movies, she loves the mall although she did not like it at first. When i saw how she reacted to loud, noises and large cruds by freaking out I took her to the mall daily until she became accustom to to it now she loves the mall. If anyone want to share stories, or ideas, or info please drop me a line… we need to work together to help our children from been the forgotten. I am now teaching her how to multi task, I will try this diet and let you know how it is working.


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