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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
March 23, 2019

2/13/2019 11:14:00 AM
Connections between nutrition and autism
For the Daily News

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 children in the U.S. have autism. I am the parent of one of those children.

Nutrition is one of many areas of concern for families affected by autism. Parents of children with autism often struggle to provide a healthy, balanced diet for their children. In some cases, a child may have motor issues that make eating challenging or medical issues that make eating uncomfortable or even painful. Autism makes communication more difficult, especially with non-verbal children, so it is sometimes difficult to discover and treat these issues.

In addition, most children with autism experience sensory issues, being either hyper-sensitive (over-responsive) or hypo-sensitive (under responsive) to stimuli. Eating is a full sensory experience that goes well beyond just taste and includes the food's appearance, smell, texture or feel, and even the sound when biting, chewing, and swallowing. These sensations mean many children with autism prefer processed, starchy foods, making it difficult to ensure adequate nutrition. Some families find it helpful to let their child eat meals away from others to minimize the sensory stimuli. Professionals who can help parents with nutrition issues include physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists.

Besides addressing concerns about what a child will eat, parents must decide what they want their children with autism to eat. Several restrictive diets are recommended for people with autism, especially the Gluten-Free/Casein-Free (GFCF) diet.

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Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Casein is a protein found in dairy products. The theory, according to the Interactive Autism Network, is that the breakdown products of gluten and casein, called peptides, may cause increased activity in opioid receptors in the brain, which may increase autistic behaviors. Scientific research has not confirmed any benefit from a GFCF diet in people with autism. However, many parents report improved behavior in their autistic children following a GFCF diet.

Other recommended diets for autism suggest restricting corn, sugar, and artificial ingredients such as additives, preservatives, dyes, artificial colors, and artificial flavors. Some parents see improvements with a ketogenic diet that limits carbohydrates in favor of proteins and fats. But again, scientific research has not confirmed any benefits from these diets, while caregivers still offer anecdotal evidence to support them.

One area of study that is getting increased attention is the gut-brain connection. From Autism Speaks, we learn that children with autism have fewer kinds of intestinal bacteria than children without autism. Research has shown that bacteria in the digestive tract communicate with the immune system, which then communicates with the brain. Scientists believe an imbalance in the gut bacteria of children with autism may trigger inflammation that reaches the brain which may contribute to autism symptoms. Additional research is underway to understand the gut-brain connection in autism and determine whether treating the gut-biome may benefit people with autism.

Parents consider many factors in choosing a diet for their autistic child beyond scientific or anecdotal evidence. There's a saying in the autism community that "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism," meaning that each individual reacts and responds differently to various interventions, including diet. Autism caregivers evaluate carefully their child's response to everything, including food. Additionally, each family must determine what diet fits their lifestyle. Availability of time and money, behavior issues, and preferences of other family members can make restrictive diets difficult to implement, so each family weighs the costs and benefits to determine what works for them.

In our case, my non-scientific observation is that my son's behavior improves slightly with a GFCF diet. So, I have determined that a mostly GFCF diet is best for my family. The benefit of following the GFCF diet strictly does not seem to outweigh the costs for us. But I believe we still see some benefit following a mostly GFCF diet.

So where do you fit in? What can you do to help an autism family? We would appreciate your acceptance, support, and encouragement. Accept that we have agonized over every decision regarding our child with autism. Accept that we have determined what is best for our child and family. Support us in the decisions that we have made. Whether we choose to follow restrictive diets or not, be accommodating. When you see a caregiver making special eating arrangements for a child, understand that it may be the best way for that child to function optimally.

Parenting well is difficult, and when the generally accepted methods don't work for your child, it can be even more difficult and isolating. Encourage our efforts. And if you're not sure what to say or how to respond, just ask. We welcome genuine concern and curiosity and the opportunity to share our struggles with you.

If you want to learn more about our organization, visit us on Facebook or join us for our monthly meeting at the Community Center onThursday at 9 a.m.. All may attend. These occasional columns are provided by Crawford County LIFE, a new local non-profit that "exists to liberate residents of preconceived ideas and addictive behaviors by educating to improve understanding of themselves and their needs; to facilitate community resources with the goal to empower residents toward better emotional, physical and mental health."

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