Episode 2: My Opinion on How Parents Can do the Autism Diet the Right Way
When you have a child with autism or you suspect that your child may have autism, the autism diet seems to be the first go to ‘treatment’.
In today’s My Opinion about…’ episode, I’m tackling what the autism diet is, how beneficial it is to children with autism and whether parents are implementing it the right way.
There are a number of interventions for autism spectrum disorder.
These interventions range from those that target behaviour change to those that target developmental skills.
There are also medical and alternative interventions.
Medical interventions don’t necessarily offer a medical ‘cure’ to autism, but rather, medication may be recommended to manage a feature of autism enough for either one of the other interventions to be effective.
Medical intervention may be sought for conditions such as severe inattention and/ or hyperactivity, self-harm, insomnia, etc.
Then, there are a number of alternative interventions for children with autism.
Autism diet happens to fall under this category.
Alternative interventions are classified as such because they are generally not well supported by scientific evidence; i.e. they have little to no evidence to support their effectiveness.
There are various alternative interventions for autism.
One example is elimination diets, which is popularly referred to as ‘Autism Diet’.
What is the Autism Diet?
Autism diet is one of many ‘alternative’ treatments for children with Autism.
Interestingly, in Kenya and I’m sure in many underserved countries, the Autism Diet is often widely regarded and for many families, it is the only intervention they seek for a child with autism.
The ‘Autism Diet’ is a restricted diet made up of no gluten, dairy and sugar.
The idea behind the Autism diet is that children with Autism may be allergic or sensitive to food products containing gluten and casein. Which, some sources claim when ingested, they cause the brain to treat them like chemicals. Causing the child to act in certain ways – be more hyperactive, unsettled or difficult to engage.
Some research has given merit to this thinking; some studies have shown that some children suspected to have autism showed unusual levels of peptides in their bodily fluids- but one could argue this either way.
All in all, the effectiveness of a gluten-free; casein-free diet for autism has not been supported by medical research.
Basically, there is lack of scientific evidence to confirm whether this diet can be helpful or not.
Now, what do I think of the ‘Autism Diet’ and are parents doing it the right way?
This is what I say to parents…
It is understandable to want to explore whatever intervention has been touted to be effective in eliminating or reducing autistic characteristics.
In Kenya particularly, because of the severe shortage in speech therapists, it makes sense that parents would want to implement whatever is within their reach.
And Autism Diet is one such intervention.
In fact, the Autism Diet is so widely recommended even by the medical fraternity.
I have even encountered teachers, especially special needs teachers who hand out sheets of paper with lists of food parents should eliminate from their child’s diet if they suspect autism.
Is the Autism Diet right for your child?
Any child suspected to have autism go on the autism diet.
It is usually the lowest hanging fruit for many parents soon after their child receives a diagnosis of Autism. Visit this post to learn more about my opinion on whether your child has autism.
Many of these parents are desperate to find solutions to the communication and behavioural issues seen in children with autism.
But, could the autism diet harm your child?
I believe so.
They way the autism diet is prescribed in some settings in Kenya could actually be more harmful than beneficial to a child.
There seems to be many variations to the diet beyond just an elimination of gluten and casein foods from the child’s diet.
I have heard of parents who have been advised by their child’s school or health provider to only give their child watermelons and apples and eliminate all other foods.
This, in addition to an elimination of dairy products and wheat products.
The danger here is that children with autism may already present with food intolerances or a very limited list of foods they can eat. And, by further restricting their diet, there is a risk that the child may not be getting the necessary nutrients that their developing bodies require in order to thrive.
I recall earlier on in my speech therapy practice in Kenya encountering a boy, whose mom reported was on the ‘autism diet’, which was made up of a rather limited number of foods.
Some of the fruits this boy was allowed to eat were mangoes and apples, however, this boy did only liked watermelons.
As a result, this boy was no longer eating any fruits.
And this is just 1 example. There are plenty more examples of children who receive prescriptions of diet that may be viewed as counterproductive.
How to use the Autism Diet the right way
My advice to parents is this…
Know why you are restricting your child’s diet.
What identifiable benefits have you noted as a result of restricting your child’s diet and if any, can you determine what exactly is causing the change.
The trend I have witnessed in Kenya is of parents:
- Restricting all the unwanted foods all at once
- Not documenting changes as a result of each restricted food group
- Not offering a replacement/supplement of the nutrient the restricted food group has eliminated
This is my opinion of how I suggest parents interested in giving this diet a try go about it.
1. Understand what the diet is eliminating and why.
Do your research and familiarise yourself with the terms involved such as gluten-free/casein-free diet. As the key to adhering to the diet is to first understand what the terms are and what foods contain these elements. See https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/gluten-free-casein-free-diets-for-autism#1
2. Replace the nutrients being lost
If the diet you are thinking of trying is eliminating dairy for instance, which as we all know is a source of calcium and necessary for the developing needs of children It is important to find suitable supplement for calcium for your child.
An example of a calcium supplement could be calcium dietary tablets, which you can check with your child’s medical practitioner before giving them to your child.
There are also other foods that can provide your child with calcium. One of them is met broth/ soup (obtained after boiling beef bones).
3. Keep a food log during the initial stages of the diet
I think this is one of the most overlooked aspects of this diet.
When parents tell me their child is on the autism diet, I usually ask them how they’re finding it- what notable effects they have seen in their child since starting the diet.
I have a similar number of parents who report noticing remarkable changes in their children with the diet as those who report not noticing any discernible changes.
For the parents who report a change in their children’s behaviour, I ask what exactly made the difference. It could be 1 food type that caused the notable changes, but they continue to restrict more than the responsible food group.
So, how does one implement a food log?
When you start the autism diet, only eliminate 1 food type at a time.
For example, during week 1, eliminate all dairy foods. Be sure to write down all examples of foods containing dairy to avoid hidden exposures to the particular food.
Note down any changes (positive and negative) in your child and indicate any other variables that may have contributed to those changes.
For example, if your child happens to be unwell during the week you were eliminating dairy foods. It makes sense that your child’s depressed mood could have been as a result of their illness and not necessarily the eliminated dairy.
The following week, return the dairy and eliminate another food type and again, note down all the changes.
Do this until you exhaust all the food types you’re eliminating and hopefully by the end of this exercise, it should be clear what effect this diet has on your child.
For the parents who report no changes, I ask them how exactly they implemented the diet and whether they strictly adhered to it.
You see there can be many hidden exposures to the elements being restricted and in most of the cases I have encountered https://www.autism.com/treating_diets.
In many cases, parents are unable to completely control their children from eating some of their favourite foods from the list of restricted foods.
If you don’t know what effect any diet restriction has on your child’s behaviour, then, the diet is probably not for your child or you haven’t implemented it accurately.
Not all children with autism are impacted by the autism diet and just having them on the diet because someone suggested it may be helpful may be unnecessary.
Besides, there can be many negative effects of the autism diet such as antisocial behaviours.
I have heard many stories about the child who is not allowed to eat wheat products at home, who will run to the neighbours when they’re making chapatis.
This may also be the child who invades other children’s lunch boxes during recess or runs to drink the visitor’s soda.
Some of the food types, which I feel parents can restrict not just for their child with autism, but for pretty much every other member of the family is processed sugar and processed foods.
Artificial additives are also unhelpful to your child with and without autism.
The key to the safe and accurate implementation of the autism diet is to be knowledgeable and be prepared.
It also helps if parents who wish to implement the autism diet can learn how to still recreate their children’s favourite, but restricted foods with alternative, but permitted ingredients.
Do check out our other related articles;
- Does my child have Autism
- Sign up and download the food log below to record the effects of different foods on your child.