Can autistic people munch their way out of their neurological difficulties?
There’s certainly lots of chatter about this. Not surprisingly, desperate families watching a loved one suffer from impaired ability to engage in social interaction, abnormal communication skills and non-functional behaviour patterns are eager to learn if there’s a nutritional magic bullet.
The regimen getting most attention is a diet that eliminates gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye) and casein (found in dairy). But while many tout this as a miracle cure, the more cautious advise against getting too excited.
Looking at all this, I find myself wondering how diet affects our brains, our moods and personalities. Alas, there are no definitive answers.
What the experts say
“Some have noticed that people with autism also have digestive system problems. They have cravings for carbs and sweets. Nobody has done a good study on this, but people have found that after removing gluten- and cas-ein-containing foods, some children’s neurological symptoms improve. Researchers have found certain bacterial populations in the digestive tracts of some autism patients. When you eat gluten- and casein-containing foods, you are feeding these bugs. When we put some of the compounds these bacteria produce into lab animals, we found they exhibited hyperactivity and repetitive behaviour and ignored each other. We also found brain changes remarkably like those we found in autistic patients.”
DERRICK MACFABE, director and principal investigator, Autism Research Group, University of Western Ontario, London
“We favour a behavioural teaching approach. Amongst families, some find improvement with diet changes; some say there’s no difference or that the child got worse. Change is something that is difficult for children with autism neurologically, and introducing a gluten- and casein-free diet is a huge change. Behaviours can change just because of the change, not because of the diet.”
NEIL WALKER, senior program director, Geneva Centre for Autism, Toronto
“When we grouped the data [from a study of the gluten- and casein-free diet], it showed no statistical difference. However, there were individual reports of children whose parents did see improvement. In other cases there was absolutely no difference at all. Then we had the unusual finding of a couple of families who were convinced their child was on the diet when they were actually on the placebo diet. This kind of research is very difficult. It’s hard to keep kids on the diet exclusively. The question of how much diet affects normal people’s behaviour is a promising area of inquiry we just haven’t tapped.”
JENNIFER ELDER, professor and chair, College of Nursing, University of Florida, Gainesville
“There’s a link between diet and child growth and development, end of story, and children with autism are no different. Children with autism usually aren’t in normal nutrition status, but each kid needs an individual assessment. No one diet fixes everything. Diet affects people in two ways, through what you eat and what your gut absorbs. Diet affects the behaviour and matters for all human beings.”
JUDY CONVERSE, pediatric dietitian, Boulder, Colorado
“When kids with autism undergo clinical research trials, whether for a drug or some other type of intervention, there is a very high frequency of a placebo response. When secretin [a digestive hormone] was studied in the late 90s, about 30 per cent of children who received the placebo instead of secretin reported a favourable response. That’s not to say kids with autism may not benefit from a dietary intervention, and I really want to stress that I think there are kids who do.”
TIMOTHY BUIE, pediatric gastroenterologist, Mass General, Boston