The following article was submitted for publication in the newsletter of a local gluten-free support group.
Dietary intervention as a treatment for autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) has historically been viewed with some skepticism, but a rising number of experts are now endorsing this approach and more and more families are seeing positive results. Many children diagnosed on the spectrum have similar biological profiles that include impaired digestive systems that make it difficult or even impossible for them to convert food into usable vitamins and minerals that are vital to essential biological (and neurological) processes. By changing diet and eliminating inflammatory foods we can help the gut to heal, help the GI system to more effectively transfer food into usable nutrients, and allow the body and mind to react more positively to traditional therapeutic approaches for the treatment of ASDs. It is an approach that I think all parents with special needs children should research and consider.
Autism is on the rise: The latest report from the CDC indicates that 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with the rate almost five times more common in boys (1 in 54) than in girls (1 in 252). With increased prevalence has come increased insight into both the causes and the treatment of ASDs. While the cause is still not fully understood, it is now believed that a genetic predisposition involving several genes coupled with some sort of environmental trigger can result in a variety of autism related disorders. And while it was once believed that the only effective treatment for ASDs was intense therapy, the most profound improvements are often realized when traditional therapy is coupled with methods to address underlying biological issues.
A gluten and dairy free diet is often reported to result in immediate behavioral improvements for children diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. The Autism Research Institute (ARI) has conducted an ongoing poll of over 27,000 parents of autistic children to determine the effectiveness of various drugs, diets and other treatments for ASDs (http://www.autism.com/pdf/providers/ParentRatings2009.pdf). One of the most commonly used diets is a gluten and casein (dairy) free diet (“GFCF”). 69% of respondents who have tried this diet report behavioral improvements, versus only 3% that report a negative outcome. This is a more positive response than nearly any of the 70 or so other approaches included in the survey.
The gastrointestinal system is our first physical defense against viruses, bacteria, and other diseases and, when functioning properly, it converts vitamins and minerals into usable forms that are needed for biological functions and also needed by the brain for neurotransmitters to function properly. When the system is impaired, as is so often the case for kids on the spectrum, food is not converted into usable nutrients, with negative effects on physical, biological, and mental development. By eliminating gluten and dairy, two common inflammatory substances, from the diet, we can help heal the digestive system, which in turn allows the body to receive nutrients necessary for vital biological function. Make no mistake, a special diet alone will not “cure” autism, nor can it even be guaranteed to have a positive effect in all cases, but by healing the body we allow the mind the best possible chance to respond to traditional therapy used to treat ASDs.
I personally have talked or worked with dozens of families who have experienced the benefits of implementing a GFCF diet as part of a program to treat ASDs. For my own son, who was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum six years ago and is now fully recovered, dietary intervention was a key piece in solving the puzzle of autism. It is a non-invasive approach that parents can incorporate largely on their own, and I strongly believe it should be given consideration by any family with a child who has been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.
Mark Raisbeck is a trained chef and father of a child now recovered from autism, as well as a board member of the Gluten Intolerance Group of Shoreline East. He hosts the blog site http://www.helpwithspecialneeds.com, and coaches families with a “whole body” approach to the treatment of autism spectrum disorders, including dietary and medical intervention. He is not a doctor and any information contained herein should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.