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Dietary Changes and Autism

By Nichole Johnson RD/LD

Q: I was wondering if there are any dietary changes that can be made to help with autism?

A: As you know, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a very complex developmental and neurological disorder that has no known cause and affects each individual in very different ways and to very different degrees. Treatments for the disorder are as complex and individual as the disorder itself.

Some of the challenges that parents have regarding food include:

  • High sensitivity to taste, smell, color and texture of foods which tends to eliminate many foods and may put a person at risk for nutritional deficiencies and limit growth. Because vegetables are often refused, they must be creatively hidden in other foods.
  • Difficulty with focus and tasks for extended period of time makes it difficult to complete meal. Offering frequent snacks and nutrient-dense foods throughout the day is essential.
  • Constipation which is due to limited food choices. So it’s essential to increase fiber and fluids.
  • Medication interactions which affect appetite.

Currently, the most followed diet modification surrounds the Gluten-Free, Casein-Free diet (GFCF diet). Although there are no controlled, scientific studies to prove the complete validity of the diet, there are many who have reported a relief in the severity of the symptoms when following the diet.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and barley and casein is a protein found in milk. The thought is that people with autism have a "leaky gut" and other gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease. Proponents feel that when the bowel is in a state of inflammation, these protein molecules are not digested properly and affect the brain and central nervous system.

Because of the lack of scientific studies, it is important to enter into any new treatment with as much knowledge as possible before making significant changes. The GFCF diet may be lacking in many key vitamins and minerals if not being monitored by a physician and a registered dietitian who have ample experience with this disorder and treatment options.

Visit with your local Autism support chapter for shared experiences with other families and what to expect or not expect. It is easy to feel drawn to making vast changes in the interest of wanting to help your child but remember that not all changes affect each child the same and the goal is to not do further harm. For more information, visit the National Autism Association and find a local chapter in your area.

For nutritional counseling, Norman Regional Health System offers the guidance of registered dietitians. Those interested can schedule an appointment for an assessment with a referral from their family physician.

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Norman Regional Health System

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