Children and adults with autism can get just as sick from poor diets and nutrition as anyone else can. When weight becomes an issue or health risks are apparent and need to be avoided, dietary interventions are the only things that work. They are absolutely necessary when children and adults, with or without autism, develop diseases like insulin resistant diabetes, or Crohn’s disease.
The very first step is a proper diagnosis with a family doctor or pediatrician. Blood tests are the quickest means of assessing just exactly what health problems the patient is facing or may be facing in the not too distant future. Current health problems can be treated as soon as doctors are aware that they exist, and parents of children with autism have several different diets out there to choose from which may or may not work for their children. It’s important to note that three of the most popular dietary interventions for autism are already used for other health issues, and therefore may not work the same for a child with autism.
The first is a gluten-free, casein-free diet, more commonly referred to as GFCF. It is a diet used with children and adults who are allergic and have extreme reactions to to any food that involves grain gluten, which is in practically every cereal, baked goods, breads, and carbohydrate rich foods. Thankfully, food companies have begun to realize that this particular food sensitivity needs specially made products and only those products are going to increase sales for them. Now supermarkets and grocery stores have at least one entire aisle devoted to GFCF foods for people who have been diagnosed with Celiac’s disease. As for children and adults with autism, there are random reports that it has worked for some, but not for others. It remains a trial and error process.
Another type of diet, which originated in the 70’s and was meant for children with ADHD, has shown some signs of effectiveness when used to control hyperactivity and impulse issues in children with autism. It’s referred to as the Feingold diet, named for the guy who designed it. It’s an attempt at getting kids to eat more of certain kinds of foods and significantly less of others. It has worked with ADHD kids and has had some limited results with kids with autism.
The last most popular dietary intervention parents have tried, again with mixed results, is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, or SCD. This diet is extremely limiting and hard to implement with children who already are very picky eaters. The theory behind it suggests that balancing out the flora in the GI tract leads to less aggressive behaviors; at the very least it solves any bowel issues the child with autism may have.
Other diets that limit the fine sugar a child can consume or eliminate milk and dairy and substitute for soy or rice products are also on the list of popular dietary interventions. The problem with any dietary changes is that the parents have to commit to it for no less than three months before they are able to see any differences, if there will be any at all. Usually after a month, people give up because it becomes too difficult to plan and buy special meal items for just one person in the house, and it’s not something everyone else in the house is willing to commit to.
Dietary changes with autism also have to be gradual. Parents who have a child with autism understand that routine and expectations of the status quo remain so, and sudden and complete upheaval of a diet or nutrition program can make things worse, not better. For instance, say a parent wants to remove milk and dairy to see if lactose intolerance is a possibility for behavior triggers. One third of all the regular milk the child normally drinks is replaced with soy, rice, or almond milk. After a week, it becomes half, and after another two weeks, it becomes two thirds, and after another two weeks the child is completely off cow’s milk. That’s just one food item gradually replaced. If the child enjoys cheese, yogurt, and ice cream, all of those have to be gradually replaced on their own as well. This entire process could take a year or more to get the autistic child completely off traditional dairy foods. That’s a long time to dedicate to a single dietary intervention that may or may not work.
Still, for parents who would rather treat behaviors and moods by finding causes and cures that don’t involve medication, it’s worth the effort. Hundreds of thousands of parents globally have tried at least one or two dietary changes for their autistic children in the hopes it will help. The results vary as much as children on the spectrum do, and that should be the expectation for any parent who wants to give it a go.
Above all else, parents should not neglect the total nutrition needs of their children. The children, despite their special needs, are children with the same nutrition needs as their peers. Keeping that in mind, parents should notify their pediatrician that they will be placing their child on a special diet, and any advice would be helpful. Many pediatricians would agree that the diets are met with mixed results, and the only help they can offer is to make sure the child is getting the bare minimum in vitamins and minerals through supplements every day. Consulting with a pediatric dietician, if there is one in the area where they live, is also an excellent approach to any diet plans.