When researching the role of diet and behaviour some of the problems that parents report as improving include being easily distracted, acts without thinking, excitable, restless, fidgety, can’t sit still, tantrums, difficult to control, “irritable, touchy and cranky”, “off with the fairies or on another planet” demanding and argumentative, problems settling to sleep, and sleep problems. Many of these problems occur in ASD children as well as in ADHD children, and many children had features of both ADHD and ASD.
Over the last 35 years I gradually learned that diet helped with those behaviours regardless of whether the child was diagnosed with severe autism, ASD or ADHD. Usually the ADHD kids were trialled on the additive free, low chemical diet, and the ASD kids on a milk and wheat free diet.
There is some evidence that exclusion of all gluten [in wheat and rye] and all dairy foods may benefit autistic children. There is much on the internet but not so much in the scientific literature. The issue gets confusing when the exclusion of additives, MSG, and some natural chemicals are recommended. Other whole foods, such as soy, peanut, buckwheat and pork, have also been implicated. This means that it is then not known exactly what is causing any benefit seen. We can now say that those with ASD and autism should use the broad approach for diet investigation that we use for the ADHD group.
A large autism group in UK called AIA [Allergy Induced Autism] not only excluded milk and wheat but also excluded additives, spices, MSG, so it was really similar to the elimination diet used for ADHD. Other ASD groups concentrate on excluding sugar, or excluding additives and use organic foods.
If we use my idea that “Food sensitivity is in the child not in the diagnosis”, we can apply that to ASD as well. Not everyone is food sensitive, and that applies to ASD as well.
Which children are most likely to respond to dietary investigation? Responders are those who have definitely noted a connection between diet and behaviour, such as after high additive food, or after Easter chocolate, or after they have excluded wheat and dairy for 4 to 6 weeks. Note that change should take no more time than that as the body does not store the suspect opioid for longer than that. I met one mother who excluded dairy and wheat for several months. When she used the additive free low chemical diet she got much more benefit in 4 weeks.
Other diet responders include those with a family history of allergic-type symptoms such as eczema, hay fever, or rashes. Often one or more of these symptoms occur in ASD children and these symptoms respond to diet change too. Each child has his own cluster of symptoms. See other articles on this page about other symptoms. I always remember a mother who had read everything on Diet and ASD on the net and brought several books she had read on the topic. When I asked her what had changed most on the wheat and dairy free diet she said the child’s constant loose motions had decreased.
Parents report that diet does not improve eye contact but does improve the overexcitability. Calming happens faster, sleep problems and irritability improve and physical symptoms decrease. Diet may need to be more or less strict over the years as symptoms worsen or improve but it will still always need some attention.
Diet is a natural cure. It does not interfere with any other treatments. This is the investigation I cover in my book “Are you food sensitive?” and you may have the help of an experienced dietitian. It involves excluding additives, natural chemicals, and allergens the family are sensitive to, usually wheat and milk. So it becomes the Family Elimination Diet [FED]. It can be trialled over 4 weeks and challenges done to see which diet factors are most important.
Parents adjust to having a child with ASD but the heightened emotionality is especially difficult to cope with. As they say “Even a difficult diet investigation is less effort than a difficult child!”
ASD is difficult to deal with. Any improvement in the associated symptoms can make a big difference to care.
Most food sensitive children and most ASD children are fussy. Just as they can have speech, emotional and coordination delays, they can have what I call “eating delay” where progression through to managing changes in tastes, textures, temperature, thickness and so on are delayed. This can be helped. See Fussy Baby for ideas that apply to fussy children too.
Because of all the above issues, nutritional intake may not be adequate. Even a “good enough diet” may not be managed. Just getting enough total energy and protein can be a problem. Get help from a dietitian. Some guided changes can make quite a difference over time. Underweight or overweight can be managed.
Motivated families often go to quite a lot of trouble attending to parts of the above issues and things can get quite muddled. I recommend that families concentrate on particular aspects of treatments as they are necessary.
At some defined time concentrate on investigating diet, or attending to nutrition in particular. Just as you do in other aspects of care, use professional help.