This popular diet for autistic children doesn’t actually work

A current popular diet that complements treatments for children with autism spectrum disorder is gluten-free and casein-free meals, or in other words a no wheat, rye, barley, and/or milk diet. At least, until now.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers sought to answer parents’ questions about dietary intervention with the most controlled dietary intervention and autism study to date. The results? Specialty diets that eliminate these foods had absolutely no effect on a child’s behavior, sleep, or bowel patterns.

“These diets have been very popular for many years as potential treatments for autism spectrum disorder, but we have found no evidence that they are effective,” said Susan Hyman, lead author of the study and chief of the Division of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

A challenging (but tasty) study

Following a group of children between the ages of 2.5 and 5.5 without any allergies or gastrointestinal disorders, researchers placed each child on a four-to-six week phase-in plan, where families implemented a gluten and casein-free diet and behavioral intervention program.

For twelve weeks, each child was provided snacks containing gluten, casein, both, or none as a placebo, all provided in a randomized order by a medical prep kitchen which ensured each snack tasted the exact same despite the ingredients. Gluten was hidden in snacks such as banana bread, brownies, and cookies, while casein hid within pudding, yogurt, and smoothies—all of which a small child would enjoy.

No one observing the study knew whether the snack provided contained any of the ingredients while tracking the children’s attention, activity, sleep patterns, and even bowel movements (that’s dedication). After the study, each child had received three of each food challenge, and were observed for another twelve weeks.

The hardest part of the study remained in maintaining their research group, says Tristram Smith, Hyman’s colleague and professor of neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics. Originally, 22 children enrolled in the study, but only 14 made it all the way through the 30-week program due to its strict requirements.

“One reason that studies like this haven’t been done in the past is that it requires a tremendous amount of effort to control for all the potentially confounding factors,” Smith continued. To maintain control, researchers also ensured that each child received the same kind and amount of stimulation in the way of behavioral interventions and treatments to guarantee that any changes were limited to dietary causes.

Talk to a doctor first 

It’s important to note that researchers found no significant changes in children between each of the test snacks provided during the study. However, Hyman continues to warn against the use of these diets without talking to a dietician or doctor first.

“A GFCF diet can meet a child’s nutritional needs, but families may benefit from professional advice regarding provision of adequate calcium and vitamin D, for example,” Hyman explained.

“Though we didn’t find any effectiveness for GFCF diets, there are many potentially positive effects that diet can have on children with autism,” Hyman concluded. “The link between nutrition and behavior needs to be investigated further so families can make informed decisions.”


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