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Can Autism Diet Help Autistic Children?

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One in 100 children in the United States suffer autism.  A new study in the April 2010 issue of Nutritional Neuroscience suggests that a strict gluten-free and casein free diet may help autistic children.

The trial led by Whiteley P and colleagues from the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom showed children with autism assigned a gluten- and casein-free diet improved their behaviors among other things.

The trial consisted of two stages. The researchers tested the diet in two groups of children with  autism spectrum disorders or ASDS.  

In the stage one, 72 Danish children aged 4 to 12 years were given the strict diet (group A) or a control diet (group B) and evaluated at baseline, 8, and 12 months for their behaviors and developmental level, inattention and hyperactivity.  

The children's behaviors were assessed using Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS).  Their developmental level, inattention and hyperactivity were measured using Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Scales (VABS) and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - IV scale (ADHD-IV).

Data from 26 children in the dietary intervention group and 29 controls showed a significant improvement in the diet group on subdomains of ADOS, GARS and ADHD-IV measures.

Because of the observation, in the second stage, group B children were also assigned the gluten-free and casein-free diet and 18 children in Group A and 17 in Group B completed the intervention dietary program in another 12 months.

The trial results indicated that clinical improvements were sustainable although a plateau effect of the intervention was observed.

Whiteley et al. concluded that the gluten- and casein- free diet may have a positive impact on developmental outcome in children with autism.  But more studies are needed to confirm the findings.

Gluten and gluten-like proteins are found high in wheat and other grains such as oats, rye, barley, bulgar, durum, kamut and spelt, and foods made from those grains. 

Casein is a protein found in milk and dairy products containing milk such as cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream, whey and some margarines. It can be present as an ingredient called caseinate in non-dairy products.

The gluten-free and casein-free diet is believed to help children with autism because many of them also suffer gastrointestinal (GI) ailments including constipation, diarrhea and vomiting.

One theory speculates that people with autism cannot digest gluten and casein properly. And these proteins can be digested to form peptides that act like opiates leading to abnormal behaviors in autistic children.

However, Susan Hyman, MD from Golisano Children's Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. and colleagues conducted a smaller study and found that the gluten-free, casein-free diet does not seem to help children with autism.

In the study of 22 children aged 2 to 5.5 years, the researchers conducted a different type of test. What they did is put all the participants on the strict gluten-free, casein-free diet for at least four weeks, and then gave them 20 grams of wheat flour, 20 grams of milk powder, either or both.

The researchers compared the children's behaviours before and 24 hours after the "challenge" and they found no difference in their behaviors.

A health observer criticized the study design saying that there was no reason in real life that children with autism on a strict diet should be "challenged". The results he said could simply hint that children on the diet had improved their behaviors in a way that a small amount of milk and wheat products did not affect them anymore.

In any way, wheat and milk are not essential vitamins so parents of the children with autism may let their children try a non-gluten and non-dairy diet to see if the diet actually helps them. They don't have to wait for others to tell them whether the diet works or not.

Autismweb.com says "foods that CAN be eaten on a gluten-free, casein-free diet include rice, quinoa, amaranth, potato, buckwheat flour, soy, corn, fruits, oil, vegetables, beans, tapioca, meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, teff, nuts, eggs, and sorghum, among others."

Recent studies have suggested vitamin D deficiency may play a role in autism. For more information on the association between this vitamin and autism, read here.

David Liu

(Send your news to foodconsumer.org@gmail.com, Foodconsumer.org is part of the Infoplus.com ™ news and information network)

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