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Gluten Free Diet: A Possible Treatment for Autism?

written by: franceshoek • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

Recently, there has been a movement to investigate the link between diet and Autism and to examine if the use of elimination diets, such as a gluten-free diet, can be a viable treatment option. This article will examine how a gluten free diet can address symptoms of autism in children and adults.

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    Autism and Diet Link

    The number of individuals diagnosed with Autism, a developmental disability characterized by restricted behavior, deficits in communication, and impairments in social development, has skyrocketed in the past several decades. It is estimated that six in every thousand individuals have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. There are a number of treatments available, such as speech therapy, applied behavioral analysis, structured teaching and psychopharmacology. Unfortunately, they do not always yield results and currently there is no cure. Many families are seeking alternative treatments to aid in decreasing symptoms, improving quality of life, and seeing potential recovery.

    Recently, there has been a movement to investigate the possible link between diet and Autism and to examine if the use of elimination diets, such as a gluten-free diet, can be a viable treatment option. Anecdotal evidence has existed for years about individuals exhibiting markedly reduced behaviors and symptoms after having gluten removed from their diet. Clinical trials have produced inconsistent results.

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    Why Gluten?

    Theoretically, gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, is not properly digested by the intestines, which results in a higher level of polypeptides in the blood stream thus creating an opiate effect. That effect may contribute to many of the symptoms seen in autistic individuals such as monotonous body movements (spinning, head-banging), fixating on parts of objects, being socially withdrawn and the need for routine. Although much of this is conjecture, and hard evidence from research and clinical trials are lacking, it is well-documented that autistic children often have gastrointestinal problems. Even the frequency of Celiac Disease (genetic intolerance to gluten) is higher in autistic people than in the general population.

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    Results

    Results from being gluten-free vary tremendously. Some families report experiencing improvements in receptive and expressive communication, attention, and social skills. A reduction in self-stimulating behaviors such as arm flapping may be seen as well. Changes can occur within a week, a year or not at all.

    Being gluten-free can be difficult. Gluten shows up as an ingredient in places ranging from the obvious wheat products such as bread, to the unexpected, like shampoo, and is referred to by a variety of names. The availability of gluten-free products is increasing as well as the accessibility of educational resources, cookbooks, and support from physicians.

    Adhering to the diet means being well educated on where gluten hides, reading labels, calling manufacturers, knowing what can be used as substitutes for gluten laden food and consulting with doctors and nutritionists to ensure that nutritional needs are being met. School aged children could be tempted on a daily basis with their peers’ lunches and offerings in the school cafeteria. It might be nearly impossible to have quick fast food meals and purchasing gluten-free options in the grocery store can become expensive. Like other treatments, it might not work for everyone, but the chance of seeing improvement with many of the symptoms of autism far outweigh the inconvenience.

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    Resources

    Children and Autism: Part 2 Management with complementary medicines and dietary interventions (http://www.racgp.org.au/afp/200710/200710angley.pdf)

    Living Gluten-Free for Dummies by Danna Korn

    Autism Society of America – www.autism-society.org