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Why do we need special diets for autism?

Autism – more than psychological.
The use of special diets for autism is controversial. This is unfortunate as it can stop parents from discussing with others what a change of diet has done for their child. It also opens up the debate about the causes and environmental triggers of autism, a debate that some people are not willing to have yet.
Common medical issues in autism.
There are medical issues that are common amongst those with autism. For example, bowel issues – compacted bowels, chronic constipation and sometimes inflammatory bowel disorders as commented on by Dr Wakefield in his controversial research. Other common disorders include food allergies and sensitivities, including reacting to many common food additives. If we look at the physical and medical issues that are frequently present in those with autism then we can begin to see autism as more than just a psychological disorder.
Biochemistry, nutrition and health.
The health of our bodies is dictated by our biochemistry, this is significantly influenced by our diet and environment. Turning this to our advantage we can manipulate our diet to positively influence the medical issues associated with autism. Dealing with these issues can have an affect on behaviour, anxiety and social awareness.There has been some discussion about this in the research literature. Poor gut bacteria have been linked to sensory issues and anxiety too. B12 supplementation and strict gluten avoidance have been seen clinically to increase socialbility and eye contact in some children. Magnesium sulphate applied topically has been seen to reduce hyperactivity and anxiety. Rosemary Waring’s research at the University of Birmingham revealed poor sulphation levels in children with autism and how this could be temporarily corrected by using Magnesium sulphate. Identifying poor sulphation levels in children with autism reveals how children with autism have problems with certain biochemical processes in the body. Supporting these processes through appropriate diet and lifestyle choices is an important factor in their well-being.

Nutrient deficiencies are common in autism; some of this can be attributed to the self-restricted diet often seen in those on the autistic spectrum. However, if your child has gut issues, food intolerances or allergies there will be some level of gut dysfunction that exacerbates these deficiencies. Some special diets can, over time, correct gut dysfunction. As this happens your child will absorb nutrients better. Many parents have observed positive changes in behaviour as gut health improves.

Which special diet for autism? Gluten and Casein Free, Specific Carbohydrate Diet or Gaps Protocol?
Some popular diets for autism are the Gluten and Casein free diet (GF/CF) or the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) Or the GAPS protocol (Gut and Psychology Syndrome). These diets remove foods that can cause problems for some children with autism. Some diets remove more foods and include foods of therapeutic benefit. The key to choosing the right diet for your child will depend on their particular issues as well as the level of commitment you can have to the diet.

A gluten and casein free is a good starting point if you are new to special diets and are unsure if it will make a difference for your child. You can run simple urine test to find out if your child might benefit from a gluten and casein free diet (contact me to find out more about this test). You will need to commit to the diet for 4-6 months in the first instance. If you notice improvements you could consider a more therapeutic protocol like Gaps (Gut and Psychology Syndrome). If you are prepared to jump right in then the Gaps Protocol or SCD would be the best starting points.

The Gaps Protocol (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) was devised by Dr Natasha Campbell McBride through her work with individuals with autism. The protocol is based on the theory that physical and digestive health can affect mental health.

When digestion is disordered the gut wall can become permeable. When this happens undigested food proteins can enter the bloodstream; where they cross-react with the immune system causing food intolerances and affecting liver function. In susceptible people these toxins can cross the blood/brain barrier
and provoke symptoms of psychological illness.

The GAPS protocol is based on the SCD diet. It involves removing foods that are difficult to digest, but the GAPS protocol also introduces foods and supplements that can help to correct gut dysfunction.

A qualified nutritional therapist can help you to choose the right diet and supplement programme for your child and advise on any functional tests that might be appropriate.

Parents of children with autism are implementing special diets and seeing improvements in their child’s health and behaviour. If you haven’t already tried it I recommend setting aside just six months to try-out one of these approaches. Use a specific evaluation tool like the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1329619/Autism-Treatment-Evaluation-Checklist-revised to monitor your child’s progress. This makes it easier to objectively analyse the impact of the diet.

Author: Sarah Hanratty

Sarah is a specialist practitioner at the Brain Food Clinic. She has a degree in Nutritional Medicine and is a certified Gut and Psychology Syndrome Practitioner. Sarah helps people to overcome physical and mental health issues using bespoke nutritional protocols.

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