If your child has autism, they may struggle with feeding problems from a very young age. Some medical studies have shown that behaviors around food, including aversions, strong preferences, and rituals can all indicate your child may have autism. These behaviors appear just before most children are diagnosed by a pediatrician, which happens around 2 to 4 years old, on average.
You’ll need to work with your pediatrician and a behavior therapist to manage your child’s feeding problems. Your child’s doctor can determine if there are gastrointestinal issues causing some of these food problems, as GI trouble is common in people with autism.
To help your child short term, you can add a dietary supplement or two to their diet.
Autism, Gastrointestinal Struggles & Behaviors Around Food
Autism is a developmental disorder with a range of symptoms, most of which involve behavior, communication, socialization, and cognition. Autism also manifests in struggles around food. Food aversions, preferences, and mealtime rituals are common signs of autism, especially in young children.
Around 2 years old, parents may notice big changes in the way the child eats and the child’s food preferences. Many autistic children refuse to add new foods to their diet, stop eating baby food, or stop nursing. Issues with food may be related to behavioral patterns, so working with a behavior therapist can help to change the child’s approach to food and eating.
More research shows that children with autism have gastrointestinal issues, so some food avoidance may stem from physical discomfort that the child is unable to express to their parents or caregivers. A general physical checkup with a pediatrician can help to determine if the root cause of your child’s food behaviors might be physiological.
How Dietary Supplements Can Help
As your child grows, you will likely learn which foods they do not want to eat and which they cannot eat for their gut health. To ensure your child gets the best nutrition possible, you can add dietary supplements to their meals. These supplements can help to reduce the risk of stunted bone and muscle growth, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Vitamin and dietary supplements will not cure autism, but if you help your child stay physically healthy and happy with a balanced diet, they will feel better. Better overall well-being can reduce some of the maladaptive behaviors they engage in and encourage positive behaviors.
The Top 5 Best Dietary Supplements to Help With Autism
Before you know your child is on the autism spectrum, they may display signs of being a picky eater. They may refuse certain foods, often fruits or vegetables, but sometimes foods with certain textures or that are served at certain temperatures. You may struggle to get them to add foods to their diet at the same rate that their neurotypical peers try new foods.
Once your child has been diagnosed with autism, some of these food struggles make more sense. You can try different approaches to helping them get balanced nutrition and overcome feeding problems.
One way that many parents ensure their children have balanced nutrition is by giving them dietary supplements. These supplements can help to reduce digestive problems and improve overall health. As the child feels physically better, their behaviors may improve, which can help them feel better about adding new foods to their diet.
Here are the most recommended dietary supplements to help with autism:
- Digestive enzymes: Over-the-counter oral digestive enzyme supplements are a combination of proteases, which aids protein digestion; lipases, which aid in fat digestion; and amylases, which aid in carbohydrate digestion. These may be prescribed by a doctor in some cases, when the pancreas does not make enough digestive enzymes on its own. More people are starting to take OTC digestive enzymes in lower doses to support general gut health. As you work with your child’s pediatrician, they may recommend OTC digestive enzymes to help your child more safely digest gluten and casein, two common proteins that appear to be difficult for people with autism to digest.
- Essential fatty acids: Also called omega-3 fatty acids, essential fatty acids are important digestive chemicals that your body cannot make on its own. Fortunately, these acids are found naturally in a wide variety of foods, such as fish, flax seeds, and canola oil. Because this type of fatty acid is good for digestion, there are several dietary supplements for this chemical available, to help supplement your diet. Supplements are good for people who cannot eat enough foods containing fatty acid for any reason, including allergies, inability to digest the proteins or other fats, or food aversions.
- Glutathione: This is an antioxidant supplement that contains three different amino acids. Unlike most antioxidants, glutathione can be made by the liver, so you do not get this chemical just through the food or supplements you consume. This antioxidant supports several functions, including building DNA, proteins, and cells; breaking down free radicals; regenerating vitamins C and E; and transporting mercury out of the brain. The supplement may help to reduce cell damage and liver damage, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce ulcerative colitis damage, and lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease. In 2011, a paper reported that oral glutathione supplements could reduce the symptoms of autism in some children, but the team did not do extensive follow-ups to see if symptom reduction continued after the study. Further research is needed.
- Probiotics: These supplements encourage gut bacteria to grow and replenish. Although many diseases are linked to bacterial infection, your body also needs some types of bacteria to maintain various systems, especially digestion. Children with autism may have problems with their gut flora, or the bacteria that live in their intestines, partly because of food selectivity and partly because developmental issues associated with autism put them at risk of off-balanced gut bacteria. Potential benefits associated with taking OTC probiotics include preventing or reducing diarrhea, Crohn’s disease symptoms, urinary tract infections, ulcers, and even eczema in some children.
- Vitamin B12: This important vitamin is found in some foods naturally, but you or your child may not eat enough of these foods to get the benefit of B12. The brain requires B12 to support cognition, so it is an important chemical in neurological health. It is also important for red blood cells and DNA synthesis. To get enough naturally occurring B12, eat fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk products. However, children with autism may be sensitive to casein, a milk protein, and they may refuse to eat several of these other foods for texture sensitivity reasons. A vitamin B12 supplement can ensure that your child gets enough of this vitamin for brain health and organ health, without forcing them to eat a food they dislike.
Supporting Your Child’s Short-Term Health to Improve Their Long-Term Behavioral Health
A recent meta-survey of 27 trials involved a total of 1,028 children with autism who were given either a dietary supplement or a placebo pill. The studies found that actual dietary supplements seemed to work better to improve various symptoms. The supplement group had:
- Improved language abilities.
- Enhanced social skills.
- Reductions in repetitive behaviors.
- Increased attention spans.
- Lower levels of irritability.
- Reduced behavior difficulties.
- Better sleep.
- Improved communication skills.
Overall, the studies suggested that improved diet had a correlation with reduced autism symptoms and improved functioning in general. The studies could not draw any direct links to how or why this occurred, only that the supplements seemed to help.
While there are few scientific studies on how well vitamin, mineral, and digestive supplements work for children with autism, adding these supplements to your child’s diet could help.
It’s wise to also work with a behavior therapist to address feeding issues. The therapist can help your child to develop positive behaviors that encourage them to try new foods and enjoy a wider range of foods.
Before you add any supplement to your child’s regime, talk to their pediatrician. Confirm the quality of the chosen supplement and get the pediatrician’s approval before using it.
- What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder? (August 2018). American Psychiatric Association (APA).
- Is Dietary Supplementation Appropriate for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder? (June 2015). Science Daily.
- Digestive Enzymes List, Side Effects, Uses, and Benefits. (December 2019). MedicineNet.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid. (July 2019). National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Dietary Supplements.
- What Are the Benefits of Glutathione? (December 2018). Medical News Today.
- Health Benefits of Taking Probiotics. (April 2020). Harvard Medical School.
- Vitamin B12. (March 2020). National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Dietary Supplements.
- Vitamins, Omega-3 Supplements May Improve Autism Symptoms. (October 2019). Reuters.
- Dietary Supplement for Core Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Where Are We Now and Where Should We Go? (August 2017). Frontiers in Psychiatry.