When your child is diagnosed with autism, you want to find as many ways as possible to help them become healthy, happy adults. There has been recent attention on gluten’s impact on autism, and how gluten factors into gastrointestinal symptoms associated with the disorder, but the research is still ongoing in this area.
Some parents report putting their children on specific diets, like the gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet, to ease digestive distress and improve their children’s mood and behaviors. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this elimination diet works very well for many autistic children, but scientific evidence to support this diet as an effective treatment for autism is lacking in 2020.
Autism & Food-Related Issues
About 1 in 68 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism. This is a developmental disorder that mainly impacts the child’s ability to communicate verbally and nonverbally, socialize with others, learn, focus their attention, and remember information.
Children with autism often become hyper-focused on one or two types of play or subjects to learn. They may develop repetitive behaviors and rituals. They often struggle with change. These issues can impact eating habits and food choices, along with other aspects of the child’s life.
Children with autism benefit from working with behavior therapists, especially those trained in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. This involves a treatment plan with measurable goals, which helps to change maladaptive behaviors, like some food aversions, and adjust them to positive behaviors, like a willingness to try new foods.
Does Gluten Intake Impact Autism Symptoms in Children?
Newer medical research shows that gastrointestinal distress or discomfort can also be a sign of autism.
Constipation, bloating, and diarrhea have been found to be six to eight times more common in people with autism compared to the general population. These digestive issues might lead some younger children to refuse foods that they associate with feeling bad, which can lead to a very restrictive diet.
Parents worry about their autistic children getting enough nutrition, so many parents turn to low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets. One of the most popular diets for children with autism is the gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet, which claims to reduce GI distress by reducing wheat and dairy protein.
Children with autism might be especially sensitive to gluten, according to some medical research. Following these diets might help children with autism, but the research is inconclusive.
Removing gluten and casein from a child’s diet can result in nutritional imbalances. It is important to balance the diet with other proteins to support your child’s physical and mental growth.
Medical Research on Gluten & Autism Symptoms in Children
In the past several years, research on gluten sensitivity and autism has been mixed. Some studies show that people with autism are more likely to have a gluten sensitivity compared to the general population, while other studies refute that based on rates of celiac disease in particular.
Some studies suggest that focusing on a gluten-free diet will help children with autism feel better, which in turn reduces some of their behavioral issues. Other studies show no behavioral benefit to the GFCF diet.
These are some of the more important medical studies:
- A study published in 2013 analyzed blood samples from 37 children with autism, 27 of their unaffected siblings, and 76 healthy children in the control group. The study examined the samples for antibodies that indicated celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that leads to inflammation in the gut. Researchers found higher rates of celiac antibodies in the children with autism, suggesting that at least a gluten sensitivity similar to celiac was causing some gastrointestinal distress. They stated that follow-up studies were needed.
- A meta-survey published later in 2013 examined several Swedish databases for diagnoses of celiac disease among people who had been diagnosed with autism. They gathered information on 250,000 people and found that people with celiac were no more likely to also have autism than the general population. About 44 out of 100,000 people were diagnosed with autism before being diagnosed with celiac disease. About 48 people in 100,000 were diagnosed with autism but not celiac disease. The study did show, unusually, that people with autism were more likely to have a positive blood test for celiac antibodies. This is not enough to diagnose someone with the condition, but it could indicate gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease requires both a positive antibody blood test and damage to the small intestine. The research team noted that more information was needed to understand the potential link.
- Research published in 2012 found that the GFCF diet could help some children with autism feel better, which could improve their behaviors. The survey involved self-reports from 387 parents of children with autism, who completed a 90-item survey online that featured questions about their child’s gastrointestinal symptoms, suspected food sensitivities, diagnosed food sensitivities, and adherence to the GFCF diet. Parents reported general behavioral and physiological improvements, with specific improvements in eye contact, social engagement, attention span, requesting behaviors, language production, and other forms of social responsiveness. The research team noted that some of the parents who responded to the survey had eliminated only gluten or only casein from their child’s diet rather than adhering to the stricter gluten-free/casein-free diet. The team found that parents who implemented the full GFCF diet reported even better behavioral and physiological results.
- A 2015 follow-up study examined the GFCF diet and its effects on behavior in children with autism, and found no significant link between these specific changes and improvements. The small study involved only 14 children with autism, between the ages of 3 and 5. The group participated in the GFCF diet for between four and six weeks, and then entered a 12-week double-blind follow-up study. Dietary challenges involved snacks that were delivered to the participants, which may contain gluten, casein, both, or neither. Once the study was complete, researchers found no statistically significant link between the elimination diet and improvements in autism symptoms. The team did note that the sample size was small, and the gluten-free/casein-free diet was safe for children as long as a nutritionist supervised their dietary needs.
Removing Gluten Could Improve Your Child’s Autism Symptoms
As of 2020, scientific research has not been conclusive on the benefits versus the detriments of the GFCF diet or whether people with autism are truly more sensitive to gluten.
As long as you ensure that your child eats a balanced diet otherwise, you can try eliminating gluten, casein, or both. Be aware that foods in these two groups are typical sources of important proteins for development and growth, so you should find a way to replace them with other proteins.
While several studies have not drawn conclusions in favor of or against dietary changes, many parents report that adjusting their child’s diet improved their behavior and interactions. There could be several reasons for this, including positive behavioral changes from the parents, behavioral interventions associated with adjusting meals for children, or actual gastrointestinal improvements. To narrow down the cause, parents could gradually reintroduce gluten or casein and see if negative effects occur.
Ultimately, the science in 2020 doesn’t support that gluten impacts autism. If you choose to use the GFCF diet to help your child’s feeding problems, be sure to work with medical professionals as you make these adjustments.
Your child’s pediatrician or ABA therapist might recommend a nutrition specialist who can ensure your child gets the right combination of vitamins, minerals, and proteins to grow and stay healthy. They can also guide you on other foods to add or remove to support your child’s overall digestive health.
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- No Link Between Celiac Disease and Autism. (September 2013). Reuters.
- Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet May Help Some Children with Autism, Research Suggests. (February 2012). Penn State.
- The Gluten-Free/Casein-Free Diet: A Double-Blind Challenge Trial in Children With Autism. (September 2015). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
- New Autism Study: Gluten-Free Diet Does Not Help Autistic Children. (November 2019). Forbes.
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- Autism and the Gluten/Casein-Free Diet: When Can We Stop? (June 2014). Autism Speaks.
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