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Can a diet cure autism?

In the last decade, autism has changed from a rare phenomenon into a common disorder. However, a lot of dubious information is still going around about autism. It is sometimes thought that autism can be caused by wrong eating patterns, and that a change in diet can undo the symptoms of autism. What does science have to say about it?

Autism is an impactful developmental disorder. The symptoms are often detected at a young age and have lifelong lasting consequences. Children with autism don’t look at their parents’ faces and don’t smile back at others. Their speech development often lags behind and they often simply repeat what others say rather than expressing their own feelings and desires. As teenagers and adults, they struggle with understanding social norms, especially when these are not explicitly explained.

Autism is in fact an umbrella term for a group of disorders with varying causes that have similar symptoms. Some forms of autism are caused by a single gene, while others originate from a combination of genes. But in many cases the cause is simply unknown – possibly genetic, something to do with prenatal development, infection, trauma, or some other factor. Some autistic children benefit from behavioural therapy, whereas others require medication: no two patients are the same. So, whenever someone claims to have found a single wonder drug for autism, such as a diet, it is a dangerous misconception or a lie.

No gluten, or milk?

Most evidence for beneficial effects of diets against autism is anecdotal, and originates from parents reporting about new diets their child has recently tried. Only a few large-scale studies have systematically studied the effects of diets on larger groups of children. Most of these focused on the GFCF diet (gluten and casein free). This diet eliminates two proteins from the diet: gluten, a protein present in grain, and casein, a protein in dairy products. These studies, however, found no evidence in favour of the efficacy of such a diet against autism. A recent scientific literature review has also concluded that the evidence of such diet interventions was weak at best.

Thus science has found no conclusive evidence showing that autism can be treated with a change in diet. And what about all those parental anecdotes, claiming to see an improvement in their autistic child after having changed their diets? Should we stop researching the effect of diets entirely? Not necessarily.

Food allergies

Some autistic children suffer from food allergies, which can have serious consequences. Ridding the child’s diet from allergens won’t cure autism, but it might help alleviate the symptoms. ThenIt is important to determine the exact allergic reaction before implementing the diet, otherwise it will be useless.

People sometimes blame artificial colouring and flavouring agents like Ve-tsin, but there are numerous substances that might trigger an allergic reaction and many of those also occur in untreated food. Strikingly, autistic children more often experience stomach and intestinal problems than normally developing children. To help these children, it is necessary to remove the undesirable elements from their particular diets, depending on their individual allergies; simply labelling one substance in all diets as generally undesirable will not help.

Removing food from an already limited diet can lead to malnutrition, so all parents that want to try a new diet should follow the following advice: always make a considered choice, and only do so after consulting a medical doctor!

During the summer we republish some of our best blogs that have only been published in Dutch. This is a translation of the formerly published Donders Wonders blog post: Kan een dieet autisme genezen?

More information

Article about the GFCF diet in autism
Literature review about the efficacy of diets in autism
Article about stomach and intestinal problems in children with autism


Author: Alina Lartseva
Editor: Lieneke and Julian
Translation: Felix Klaassen
Editor translation: Ellen Lommerse

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