Diets for Children with Autism

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Child eating

For a subset of children with autism, dietary changes may make a difference in symptoms. Although there is limited reliable scientific evidence to back up the practice of specialized diets as a treatment method, many parents and caregivers report that these diets can reduce repetitive behaviors, improve communication, and enhance social skills. If you're considering a specialized diet for your child, be sure you understand the basics of the diet and any potential associated risks.

Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet

The gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet is a popular at-home treatment that many parents try. This diet eliminates all foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains, as well as all foods containing the milk protein casein. A child on this diet cannot consume milk, pasta, wheat cereal, breaded meats, yogurt, and a large number of other items. However, many parents supplement with calcium-fortified soy milk and rice-based cereals and breads.

Does It Work?

While parents report that the GFCF diet is effective, this effectiveness hasn't been proven in objective scientific studies. According to the results of a parent survey published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, parents reported that this diet was more effective if their child was also diagnosed with food allergies, had food sensitivities, or regularly experienced gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. These GI symptoms are common in a subset of children with autism. For those who did not have GI symptoms, parents reported that the diet was less effective.

However, in a small, double-blind study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, the results did not hold true when parents were unaware of whether their child was following the diet. In this case, when researchers objectively assessed autism symptoms using the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), they found that despite parents' belief in the diet, it did not reduce autism symptoms at all.

Potential Risks

Because the GFCF diet limits a child's nutritional consumption, many health professionals are concerned about the risks associated with this type of treatment. A review of the literature published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders concluded that the risks of the diet outweighed the potential benefits unless the child had been diagnosed with a gluten or casein intolerances or allergies or unless there was a significant improvement in behavior. The article cautioned against the following serious risks:

  • Stigmatization - Following a different diet than peers could actually harm the child socially.
  • Problems with bone growth - Children on the GFCF diet can have thinner cortical bone areas than children consuming regular, healthy diets.
  • Diversion of resources for treatment - If parents are focused on dietary treatments and don't spend time or money on other proven therapies, children can regress or fail to progress.

Additive-Free Diets

Additive-free diets have been around since the 1970s, and the most famous of these is the Feingold Diet. These types of diets eliminate artificial food additives, such as dyes, flavorings, and flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate. Instead of eating artificially dyed or flavored products, children on this diet eat homemade or naturally-flavored items. Although this can be hard to implement, particularly if children are in a childcare or school setting, it does not result in nutritional deficiencies.

Does It Work?

The Feingold Diet and other additive-free diets actually targeted attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder symptoms, rather than autism spectrum disorders. Currently, there hasn't been reliable testing to determine whether this diet can help children with ASD. However, a subset of children with ASD also have ADHD, and controlling ADHD symptoms can help. According to an article published by Harvard Health Publications, a diet that eliminates food dyes may help reduce ADHD symptoms. The review notes that other food additives don't impact symptoms in a measurable way.

Potential Risks

Because additive-free diets typically don't eliminate healthy food groups, they are less likely to cause a nutrient deficiency. The biggest risk of following this type of diet is that parents may expend time and money on the diet instead of putting those resources toward proven therapies.

Trying an Autism Diet

For parents who are seeing limited results with conventional therapy, alternative treatments for autism may seem like a viable choice. After all, most concerned parents will try almost anything to help their children. However, before you decide to try a diet or any other alternative therapy, keep these tips in mind.

Talk to Your Doctor

Always talk to your doctor before starting any kind of diet or independent treatment. To give your child the best chance at learning and success, you need to make sure he or she is receiving adequate nutrition. Your doctor can help you find the best way to implement a new diet while still making sure your child's body has everything it needs.

Don't Stop Other Treatments

Although it can seem tempting to "test out" a diet by eliminating other treatments or just to focus on the diet and take a break from therapy, it's essential that you continue your child's regular treatment unless instructed to stop by a professional. Medications, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and other interventions require sustained commitment by you and your child. If you choose to try a diet and stop those treatments, your child may regress.

No Significant Scientific Evidence

Although specialized diets are a popular treatment for autism, there isn't enough scientific evidence to back them up as effective. If you're considering a diet for your child, be sure to talk to your doctor and continue your other therapies. Ultimately, the best diet for your child is one that gives him or her the nutrients necessary to support brain and body growth.

Diets for Children with Autism