As you might know, I’m a big fan of the autism diet, or rather, using diet to heal the issues that come with autism, as well as other learning or developmental disabilities, such as ADHD, Down syndrome and more. More than one parent has helped their child thrive. In this post, I’m going to review the different diets that can benefit these conditions, what they are for, who should be on them and weigh the pro’s and cons.
Why The Autism Diet Can Be Beneficial To Autistic Children
You may have heard, “This won’t work.” I heard that from a doctor myself. It took me TWO FULL YEARS to actually embark on the autism diet after that remark, and the positive impact was immediate! There are several reasons why an autism diet can help a child:
- Many kids with autism have allergies OR food sensitivities. Food allergies can be medically dangerous, cause anaphylactic shock and even be a cause of death in severe cases. The immune system is launching an attack against the food. Food sensitivities arise when food is not processed properly by the body, for example, if you are deficient in certain enzymes. While not life-threatening, sensitivities can cause problematic or dangerous behavior, medical issues and more. You can go deep and learn more about healing from Dr. Kenneth Bock’s book, “Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies: The Groundbreaking Program for the 4-A Disorders, my affiliate link. This is the book that helped me start my journey to healing my children.
- Good gut health is the key to healthy, functioning immune system however many children with autism have gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. They often have problems with candida and other unhealthy flora or gut bacteria. Many of our kids have leaky gut, and react poorly to gluten in their diet.
- Many autistic children cannot properly detox their bodies so when they are taking in foods that they are reactive to or foods with toxic substances in them, it doesn’t process out of their bodies easily as it does for the rest of us. These methylation issues can cause all kinds of problems for autistic children.
- Foods are linked to various issues. For example, we know that artificial dyes trigger ADHD in children. This could be part of the problem for your autistic child. You need to look into his or her diet to pull out the offending foods and see the difference it makes.
- Some autistic children may actually have Celiac disease.
Why The Autism Diet Might Not Work
You may have heard, “There’s no clear evidence that the benefits outweigh the difficulties of such a diet” as our developmental pediatrician told us nearly a decade ago. What she really meant is that at that time, there were no peer-reviewed studies that she could point to – few, if any, had been done at all in 2008.
Today, however, the science is getting better. We now know about the human microbiome that poor gut health is linked to autoimmune issues. Additionally, gut and immunity are linked to healthy brain function. The science just needs to catch up as more evidence shows the links between health issues, environmental causes, and autism.
Still, you may hear people say, “The autism diet didn’t work for me.” It is actually very difficult to be 100% gluten-free. If it doesn’t seem to have an effect, there may be a couple of reasons for that:
This is probably the biggest reason why it’s not working. In fact, “certified gluten-free” in the U.S. means 20 parts per million (PPM) unless otherwise noted. Sounds little, right? Well, NO gluten really does mean none, not even 20 PPM. If a food has had gluten removed or may have had contact with gluten crumbs, you want to eliminate it. That means, for example, no oatmeal because it is grown with wheat. Certain dairy-free milk alternatives are milled with gluten and so you need to be on the lookout for gluten everywhere. Additionally, you cannot cook on the same surface that had gluten, cannot share toasters or dishes or fryers, etc.
Your Child Isn’t On It Long Enough
If it doesn’t work after 3 months, your child may need to be off gluten for 6 months. If you still see no effect, but your child has autism and has had a benefit from being off casein, it’s still likely that it somehow is benefitting him or her on a level you can’t see, like a molecular or biochemical. My advice is to just stay on it – that can’t hurt because you don’t actually need gluten grains – although the pasta lobby might beg to differ! (Yes, there is a pasta lobby, believe it or not.)
More Hidden Sources
You have to really think outside the box with products. Perhaps your child’s supplements have gluten. Or, perhaps you give your kid probiotics that contain some form of casein. Maybe you use hair care or bath products with glutens. I’m not just talking about skin absorption – my child has been known to drink bathwater!
An Overview of The Autism Diet as Therapy
I’m going to review the specifics of the Autism Diet.
- What the Autism Diet involves:
The “autism diet” specifically is one where you eliminate some of the biggest problems for kids with gastrointestinal (GI) issues: caseins, which are milk dairies, glutens, which are the substance that gives bread its “gluey” nature, and soy, which can wreak havoc on hormones even if it USDA certified organic. However, there a lot of other diets, such as SCD, GAPS, Paleo, which have been known to benefit kids with autism. Additionally, you’ll want to remove toxins, which means clean cookware, safe storage, BPA and BPS free everything, and no GMOs or pesticides. Yes, it is a tall order, but it’s worth the trouble.
- How to do it or get it:
Anyone can do this on their own, but there are considerations. Now, if your child has GI issues (anything from outright lesions to constipation or diarrhea), that can affect their ability to properly metabolize nutrients. I asked my homeopath about things like “recommended” vitamins and minerals for kids but she told me that the girls’ systems are broken at that level and, until fixed, your just dropping uselessly vitamins down a hole. That said, you do want to give your kids the best nutrition either way.
This can be a costly diet if you substitute gluten and dairy free packaged products for what you now eat in packages. However, a better option is to cook from scratch more often. In addition, it’s really hard for restaurants to get this right, so you may want to eliminate or cut down dining out or bring your kids’ foods with you. What you save from those two things will make up for the extra you may need to spend buying gluten-free flours and other items.
This is an easy fix that often has results that you had not imagined before. For us, it helped us detect Amelia’s dairy allergy and helped Zoe sleep through the night.
There are a few. First, you need to be massively diligent with your child’s diet. We actually put “no food from school” in our children’s’ IEP, which gets broken repeatedly some years. Second, you need to watch them everywhere and do things like bring your own food to events your child is invited to. This suck. People will NOT understand. You just have to do what’s best for your family and let the rest go.
- Risk assessment:
I don’t really see any risks to this, but some people will tell you that “OMG YOU CANNOT STOP GIVING YOUR CHILD MILK,” people like your pediatrician. Although, you can see how ridiculous that is if you see a negative behavior or reaction or allergy disappear when that food disappears. That’s why elimination diets are critical: you eliminate items, one at a time, for a recommended period of time and note the changes in your child.
- Benefits for other disabilities:
Yes!! My personal belief is that a diet can help anyone. Kids with disabilities often have a comorbid food allergy or sensitivity issues. For example, we discovered that both are common in kids with Down syndrome and it was true for our child.
- Overall opinion:
I can’t recommend this enough. The safest, truest way to find out if a food is harming your child is to remove it from their diet – no false positives or negatives, no “scratch test” torture. I’m not going to say no one ever said, “Eating better is dangerous.” They have said it because the food lobbyists in this country are powerful and well-financed. Your child will not die or wither without dairy, gluten, and soy, and it just may help them thrive.
The Autism Diet: The Details for Your Child
So you’ll often see the “autism diet” referred to as GF/CF or GF/CF/SF. Here are what those initials stand for and what that means in terms of diet.
GF: Gluten Free
This diet is of all wheat products and derivatives. There is controversy about the gluten content of certain grains (millet, sorghum, spelt), but basically, anything that can or possibly be cross-contaminated should be eliminated. Some hidden places you may find gluten include hot dogs, sausage, soy sauce, salad dressings and more. TACA has a great list of hidden sources of gluten.
CF: Casein Free
Casein is the protein found in cow milk. It’s in all cow milk products: milk, cheese, casein/caseinate or any combination of that term, butter, butter fat, butter oil, many margarines, lacuose/luctulose, lactoglubulin, lactalbumin phosphate, pudding, nougat, goat’s milk, any milk derivatives (condensed, solids, etc.), sodium lactylate, sour cream, sour cream solids, whey in all forms. The following may contain casein: caramel, bavarian cream, coconut cream, hot dogs, lunch meat, sausages. Ok, that’s a lot! In fact, TACA has a few additions to this list as well. Milk proteins take up to 3 weeks to remove from the body.
SF: Soy Free
Soy is terrible for you, in my opinion even when it’s certified organic, non-GMO and fermented. Soy also can contain gluten, and it can wreak havoc on the thyroid and mess with estrogen levels. Read my article on the dangers of soy and what I use instead. TACA also has a list of hidden sources of soy. Essentially many artificial additives, emulsifiers, enhancers, etc. do contain soy.
Starting The Autism Diet
My recommendation is to take things one step at a time. First, remove caseins: that is, all dairy except organic ghee. You’ll need to look for any words starting with “casein” or “lac”, as well as any “whey” products. Do this for a few weeks (at least 3) to see if any changes occur. Next, take out the gluten. Gluten is notorious for cross-contamination. Also, we are not talking about Celiac disease or a disorder where you might be tolerant of some gluten. The only way to remove gluten fully is to take it 100%, down to the smallest microbe, and do that for 3-6 months. This is going to be a challenge and will take some time and practice. Soy is challenging because it’s in everything.
Resources for The Autism Diet
Ready to get started? Here are some resources that can – and will – help you:
- Autism.com has an excellent page on special diets and a video:
- TACA has resources galore on the GF/CF/SF diet.
- A more in-depth article by me on 5 reasons it’s difficult to go gluten and casein free and what do to about it.
- How to prevent an autism diet infraction and how to detox your kids from it.
- Why you don’t need grains for fiber and what to do instead.
- Benefits for parents:
Some of my favorite, from my Amazon links:
Special Diets for Special Kids, Volumes 1 and 2 Combined: Over 200 REVISED and NEW gluten-free casein-free recipes, plus research on the positive … ADHD, allergies, celiac disease, and more!
The Kid-Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook, Updated and Revised: The Ultimate Guide to the Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet
Special-Needs Kids Eat Right: Strategies to Help Kids on the Autism Spectrum Focus, Learn, and Thrive
Eat Like a Dinosaur: Recipe & Guidebook for Gluten-free Kids