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Special diets for special kids: Autism and casein- & gluten-free diets

About the author: Marla Hardee Milling is a freelance writer in Asheville, North Carolina. Her articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, both online and in print, including Cooking Smart, Healthgate, Pinnacle Living, Blue...

Can food affect your kid's autism?

Beky Garrett never suspected milk was the culprit negatively influencing her daughter's potty-training. Garrett has two children, a son and a daughter, both diagnosed with autism. "I had a horrible time potty training my daughter," says Garrett. "Sometimes I would run out of milk and not get it for three or four days. During this time, she would use the bathroom properly. Then milk would come in again and she stopped. It took me awhile to recognize this pattern."

"Leaky gut"

One of the reasons the GFCF diet is often recommended for autistic individuals is due to a medical condition known as "leaky gut," in which the intestinal lining is more permeable than normal. A leaky gut does not properly absorb nutrients, and as a result can lead to symptoms of bloating, gas, cramps, fatigue, headaches, memory loss, poor concentration of irritability. Healing of the gut is being seen in individuals who have gluten and casein eliminated from their diets.

typical noodles - pasta

In a study written by Stephen M Edelson, PhD, at the Center for the Study of Autism in Salem, Oregon, he says: "Some people suggest that the health status of the child's intestinal tract should be examined first; and if there is evidence of a 'leaky gut,' then the child should be placed on a gluten- and/or casein-free diet. The intestinal permeability test is one way to determine whether a child has a 'leaky gut.' This test involves drinking a sweet-tasting solution and then collecting urine samples afterwards. Most physicians can administer this test. Parents have also sent their child's urine samples to laboratories to test for the presence of abnormal peptides associated with gluten and casein in the urine. However, many people feel that these tests are not necessary and suggest that one should simply place the child on a restricted diet and then observe whether or not there are any improvements in the child."

A GFCF success story

Miami mom Hilda Mitrani says she has seen significant improvement in her autistic son in the 10 years he has been on a gluten-free, casein-free diet. She initially found out about the diet through an email support group list of parents of children with autism. "On this list, Karyn Seroussi and Lisa Lewis, PhD, were commenting on children with autism whose behaviors had decreased after dietary changes," says Mitrani. "Then I went to an autism conference and met Karyn and her husband, who was a scientist with Johnson & Johnson."

gluten in... school paste?

She says she quickly realized that her son fit the pattern of the children that were being helped by the GFCF diet. "He has frequent bouts of diarrhea, horrible gas attacks and allergic reactions that were visible on his skin," Mitrani says. "Also, I would describe his behavior as something like an addict's. When he had his 'gluten fix,' he was pacified. Without it, his behavior was uncontrollable."

After starting the diet, her son's gastrointestinal system began to settle down with the diarrhea, gas attacks and allergic reactions disappearing, and his behavior stabilizing. The diet however, is hard to maintain, especially as a child may continue to seek gluten. "For more than a year, he sought out gluten in every place he went," says Mitrani. "I would find him in a bathroom, covering himself with soap or gluten-based shampoos, or was told that he tried to eat paste at school. As he became older, I could speak with him rationally about not doing these things."

In addition, Mitrani took special pains to make sure her son had a special treat at every birthday party and family event. "We made cakes, cookies, pizza and everything else that other people would be eating in a gluten-free version, so that he never felt left out."

She offers the following advice to parents considering the GFCF diet for her or his child:

Autism - experience, advice, awareness

  • If you've heard how hard it is to maintain this kind of special diet, take heart in the fact that it's easier now than ever, with terrific gluten-free recipes and many types of flour with which to bake.
  • Try every recipe until you find ones that work for you.
  • Don't forget to eliminate the gluten in over-the-counter products or pharmaceuticals as a potential contaminant.

For information on gluten intolerance -- and some tasty GF recipes -- check out these links:

Sources include gfcf.com and autisminfo.com/diet.htm
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