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Starting Your Autistic Child on a Gluten Free/Casein Free Diet

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Updated May 21, 2014

Special Diets for Children with Autism

While mainstream medical practitioners rarely recommend special diets for autism, many parents will hear of the success of such diets through websites, books, friends and conferences. The science around such diets is sketchy, but there are plenty of anecdotal stories of special diets having a profound and positive impact on children with autism.

The gluten (wheat) free, casein (dairy) free diet is the most popular of the specialized diets, and there is evidence that the diet is often helpful in lessening autistic symptoms such as impulsive behaviors, lack of focus, and even speech problems. But wheat and dairy are a part of almost everything we serve in the United States -- and keeping a child away from ice cream, pizza, milk, and most snack foods and cereals is no small task.

So, what does it take to start a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet?

Identifying Gluten and Casein in Your Child's Diet

Removing gluten and casein from a child's diet is not as simple as saying goodbye to milk and bread. According to Carol Ann Brannon, a nutritionist who specializes in diets for children with autism, gluten is not only ubiquitous, but may also find its way into your child's system through the skin:
    "Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, and any derivatives of these grains, including, but not limited to malt grain-starches, malt wash, hydrolyzed vegetable/plant proteins, grain vinegar, soy sauce, and natural flavorings. Casein is found in milk and milk products from mammals....Gluten is in even in Play-Doh, adhesive on stamps and stickers, and many hygiene products. Soy, another common food allergen, is in many foods and hand lotions, make-up, etc."

Starting Your Autistic Child on a GFCF Diet

According to Brannon, there are two ways to start a GFCF diet: “dive in head first” or the slower, “get your feet wet” approach.

The “dive in head first” parents prefer to go GFCF all at once and decide to place the entire family on the diet. Often, siblings and parents may also experience benefits from the diet. The “get your feet wet” parents opt to go gluten-free first, and then progress to excluding casein-containing foods and beverages.

An increasing number of GF foods are available due to the increase in celiac disease. A parent should select the approach that best suits their personality and their lifestyle. Many parents begin the diet with dread and fear, but soon find it is more manageable than they had imagined. GFCF diet support groups can be a tremendous help to parents. In addition, there are many websites and blogs for parents.

What Can My Child Eat on a GFCF Diet?

In general, says Brannon, "Children can eat a wide variety of meat, chicken, eggs, fruits, and vegetables -– anything that does not contain wheat gluten or casein. It is generally recommended that organic, whole GFCF foods be consumed whenever possible."

GFCF advocates caution that even a little bit of wheat or dairy could have a big impact on a child with autism. To avoid accidentally eating the wrong foods, it's important to read labels carefully -- wheat and dairy are often "hidden" ingredients in packaged products. It's also very important to inform teachers, therapists, and other adults in your child's life that he is now wheat and dairy free.

Sources:

Campbell,DB et al. "A genetic variant that disrupts MET transcription is associated with autism." Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2006 Nov 7;103(45):16834-9.

Interview with Carol Ann Brannon, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition Therapist

Interview with Dr. Cynthia Molloy, M.D., M.S. Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Center for Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, March 13, 2007.

Jyonouchi H, Geng L, Ruby A, Zimmerman-Bier B. "Dysregulated innate immune responses in young children with autism spectrum disorders: their relationship to gastrointestinal symptoms and dietary intervention." Neuropsychobiology. 2005;51(2):77-85.

Molloy CA, Manning-Courtney, P. "Prevalence of Chronic Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Children with Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder." Autism. 2003. 7(2) 165-171.

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