Because of their sensitivity to smell, temperature, taste and texture, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often “picky” eaters. Some develop fetishes such as only eating beige-colored foods or foods with creamy textures. They often like very sour or very spicy tastes. Some develop chewing fetishes where they constantly suck on pens, pencils or items of clothing.
These children also sometimes have digestive problems such as acid reflux, hiccups, diarrhea, vomiting, or constipation. They are susceptible to celiac disease, which is caused by poor absorption of certain nutrients. The danger is that celiac disease damages the digestive system. Aspies frequently suffer from Dermatitis herpetiformis, which causes skin rashes and tissue damage in the intestine. It has also been shown that gluten can aggravate behavioral symptoms in autistic children sensitive to these foods.
It becomes a challenge for parents to make sure their child gets proper nutrition. One trick that works for many parents is changing the texture of a despised food. If your child will not eat peas, try serving pea soup. If she refuses orange juice, try orange slices. Most clinicians believe the less you indulge food fetishes, the less entrenched they become. If an autistic child creates a rule that “no foods can touch on my plate,” it can easily become a lifelong rule if parents do not intervene.
One promising food therapy is the “Gluten-Free Casein-Free Diet” or GFCF diet. The theory behind it is that a child with ASD cannot digest casein (found in dairy) or gluten (found in grains). It is true that undigested molecules of these substances frequently show up in their urine samples. These amino acid chains (called peptides) affect neurological function and can worsen a child’s symptoms. Peptides may even have an opiate effect on some children.
Parents begin the diet by first eliminating either the casein or the gluten food group. Gluten free means no bread, barley, rye, oats, pasta, all kinds of flour, food starch, biscuits, cereals, cakes, donuts, pie, pretzels, pizza, croutons, and even crumbs stuck in the toaster. You can substitute gluten-free products. Next, you eliminate all dairy products including milk, cheese, goat’s milk and cheese, ice cream, yogurt, most margarines, puddings, and so forth. If you eliminate the dairy group, you may have to give your child calcium supplements. You also need to cut out “trigger foods” including chocolate, food colorings, caffeine, and peanut butter. The GFCF Diet website offers all kinds of resources for parents such as cookbooks, food products, and DVDs.
Many parents believe that the GFCF diet really helps their children. In an unscientific survey of over 2000 parents who tried it, most saw significant improvement and five reported “miracles.”
Research into diet and vitamin therapy for children with autism is very sketchy at this point. Nevertheless, many parents try these routes. One scientific study of alternative therapies found that over half of all parents of children with ASD have tried diets, herbs or vitamin therapy–72% felt they were worthwhile.
Many parents swear by the GFCF diet, while others prefer the Feingold diet or megavitamin therapy. You can buy vitamin and herbal supplements specifically made for children with autism. Such supplements often include calcium, fish oil, omega -3 -6 or -9, vitamin B-6, HNI enzymes and DMG or dimethylglycine. If you use these diets and therapies, the best thing to do is to keep written records of how often your child tantrums or exhibits other behaviors. This way you can tell if the therapy is working.
There have been a few scientific studies of the GFCF diet. In one three-month study of fifteen children ages two to 15 years old, there was no difference between the children who followed the diet and those who did not. However, researchers at the Loma Linda Medical Institute in California concluded that the diet was mostly helpful and improved nonverbal cognition. More double-blind studies are needed for conclusive results.
On the other hand, many parents have tried the GFCF or Feingold diets and found they were not worth the effort. These diets make it extremely hard to buy regular grocery foods or to eat in restaurants. If there are other children, you end up cooking different meals for them. Trying to maintain these diets causes parental burnout that may not be worth the potential benefits.
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