Can Changes in Diet Really Alleviate the Symptoms of Autism?

boy with cookiesParents of children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will search high and low for methods of treatment that can help their kids manage the symptoms associated with this challenging situation. Regardless of the severity of ASD, intervention is essential and necessary to ensure that all children who receive such a diagnosis will be given the opportunity to expand their horizons, achieve in academic environments, build satisfying personal relationships with peers and learn how to cope with the life challenges they may face in the years ahead.

Autism is diagnosed far more frequently than ever. According to the most recent statistics, at least 1 out of every 50 American children will receive such a diagnosis at some point in their lives, which represents a 300 percent increase in the incidence of ASD since the early 2000s. This trend has added a sense of urgency to the ongoing attempts of pediatric specialists and mental health professionals to unlock the mystery that surrounds this phenomenon, but there is still much work to be done in this area as definitive answers have so far proven elusive.

One idea about autism that has generated quite a bit of discussion and controversy is the food allergy thesis. Many alternative health practitioners believe that kids with ASD may have difficulties digesting and processing certain types of foods, and they claim that the complete removal of these consumables from a child’s diet can ameliorate at least some of the symptoms that have come to be associated with autism. Foods that contain gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats) and casein (a dairy protein) are considered the primary culprits, although it is believed that other types of food allergies may occasionally be present in kids with ASD and could also make the symptoms of the disorder manifest more severely.

According to alternate theories, some children with ASD have a difficult time digesting gluten and casein efficiently, which causes their bloodstreams to be flooded with protein byproducts called peptides. These amino acid compounds are perfectly natural and beneficial in most instances, but it is alleged they can act as opiates in the brain when available in undesirable abundance. Even though kids with ASD will often—although not always—test negative for food allergies to gluten and casein, holders of the food allergy thesis claim that the subtle dysfunctional reactions these proteins can cause in the digestive system will ultimately affect the brain in ways that can exacerbate—or perhaps even cause—the lack of energy, confusing behavior, communication difficulties and apparent detachment from reality that so often characterize autism.

The Anatomy of a Debate

Mainstream medical science has expressed great skepticism about the supposed connection between gluten, casein and autism, and most doctors tend to dismiss the idea that a problematic allergic response in the stomach could be localized and undetectable. A few controlled studies have been done that have allegedly disproved the idea that a gluten-free, casein-free diet reduces the severity of ASD symptoms, and the cause-and-effect mechanism that has been proposed to explain the harmfulness of wheat and dairy products to kids with ASD has largely been rejected and at times has even been labeled as pseudo-science.

Despite all the officially-sanctioned skepticism, however, the number of parents and caregivers of children with autism who swear by the gluten-free/casein-free diet has been growing by leaps and bounds. These parents claim that their kids’ formerly repressed abilities to learn, socialize, communicate and control compulsive behaviors improved dramatically over time after the switch was made to a more restrictive food plan. Some have suggested these assertions are based on wishful thinking or that parents are crediting new diets for changes actually brought about by conventional behavioral and psychological therapies, but parental advocates of the gluten-free/casein-free diet reject these claims and accuse skeptics of ignoring real-world evidence while relying too much on controlled studies that are of too short a duration to be valid (supporters of the gluten-free/casein-free diet say that children with ASD may have to stay on this food plan for several months before lasting changes will become evident).

Scientists can often be rather contemptuous of so-called “anecdotal” evidence, claiming that it is untrustworthy and subject to all sorts of memory and reporting biases. But while there may be some truth to these assertions, skeptics who automatically dismiss the testimony of ASD parents about the effects of a gluten-free/casein-free diet on such grounds are taking things entirely too far. Moms and dads of developmentally-disabled children are far from naïve or gullible; they know perfectly well how risky it can be to allow wishful thinking to intrude on their search for quality help and meaningful answers, and when these parents swear that changes in diet have made a positive difference in their kids’ lives, medical science would be wise to take these contentions very seriously. Scientific rigor demands precision in methodology and analysis, but it also requires an open-minded approach and a willingness to abandon pet assumptions when contrary evidence calls them into question.

The Science of Hope

A 2012 Penn State study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutritional Neuroscience surveyed almost 400 ASD parents and caregivers who had put their kids on gluten-free/casein-free diets. The researchers responsible for this study concluded that the evidence for the effectiveness of such a diet was strong, especially in kids with ASD who had suffered from gastrointestinal problems and who had either been diagnosed with food allergies or exhibited at least some symptoms that might be consistent with the presence of such allergies, even if they had not proven easy to diagnose. Predictably, some have dismissed this study as nothing more than a collection of anecdotes and therefore worthy of being ignored, but this type of dogmatic skepticism should itself be greeted with a skeptical attitude by those who have a healthy respect for the unique insights and perspectives that can be offered by parents and caregivers, who obviously know their children better than anyone else.

Few would argue that the proposed connection between food allergies, specifically to gluten and casein, and the onset and severity of the symptoms associated with autism is still uncertain and unproven. The information obtained from moms and dads who have tried dietary therapies is intriguing, but it is clear that more extensive research on this potential link will be required before any intelligent final judgments can be rendered. While we all wait for more evidence to come in, however, parents of kids with ASD could hardly be blamed for wanting to give the gluten-free/casein-free diet a try right now, so they can see what happens and decide for themselves if they believe it actually has some merit.

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