Can Diet Help Reduce Your Child’s Autism Symptoms?
Parents of children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find themselves dealing with a variety of food-related challenges. This could include things like allergies, or children who have a hard time swallowing. Some autistic children – like neurotypical children – might be picky eaters or hate some foods and flat out refuse to try them. Some kids with autism have trouble with different textures of food, while others might have experienced problems with digestion after a meal.
But, can your child’s diet improve his or her symptoms of autism? We’ll take a look at the research that’s been done over the years on the links between food and autism symptoms.
Special Diets – Are They Worth It?
Autism is a complex brain disorder, and while like most kids your child is probably going to be healthier if they eat well, there’s no evidence to suggest that any kind of special diet will help reduce the symptoms of ASD. And while it might seem like cutting certain foods out of your child’s diet might help to reduce their symptoms, in some cases it could end up doing more harm than good.
As an example, some children with autism will have weaker bones compared to neurotypical kids. As a result, cutting out dairy from their diet could be a problem, since dairy products are packed with nutrients that can contribute to bone strength. Studies with autistic children found that eating dairy products containing casein did not affect their autism symptoms in any significant way.
Instead, your child’s diet should be supportive of both his nutritional requirements and autism symptoms. The best thing to do is to work closely with your doctor and an experienced nutritionist who can help you come up with a tailored meal plan for your child.
If your child has any digestive issues such as stomach aches, nausea, vomiting or constipation, your doctor can help you put together a diet that will help them avoid these symptoms.
And, bear in mind that your child’s nutritional needs will change as they get older. Working with the professionals will help you make sure that your child is eating foods that are meeting their needs at every stage of their development.
What About Supplements?
Giving your child certain supplements can have a range of benefits, including boosting nutrition, improving their overall health, and calming some ASD symptoms. Some of the best supplements for autism that you may want to speak to your doctor about include:
Fatty acids: Essential fatty acids contribute to both the brain and immune system health and strength. Since your body does not make essential fatty acids like Omega-3 or Omega-6, you need to get them from your diet or from supplements.
Vitamins and minerals: It’s quite common for children with autism to be lacking in vitamins and minerals from their diet, especially if they are picky eaters and have very strict eating habits. Vitamins and minerals are some of the best natural supplements for autism as they help to balance your child’s system and make sure that he is getting all the nutrients that he needs.
Probiotics: Probiotics are an excellent supplement to give your child as they help with digestion. These healthy bacteria live in and protect the digestive tract and can be found in probiotic supplements. They can also help with other physical symptoms closely linked to autism, like inflammation and swelling.
If you’d like to learn more about useful supplements for autistic children and how to introduce them into your child’s diet, check out Autism Parenting Magazine. Click here to discover resources, tips and more to help you best support your child.
Research suggests that sleep disorders may be more common in children with autism than those without; an estimated 40-80% of autistic children have trouble sleeping. If this sounds like your child, you might be wondering if you can alter their diet in some way, or give them a supplement to help them sleep.
Some of the most common problems among autistic children who have trouble sleeping include:
- Inconsistent sleeping routines
- Waking early
- Waking frequently throughout the night
- Poor sleep quality
- Difficulty falling asleep
And, a lack of a good night’s sleep doesn’t affect just the child, but everybody in the family. Thankfully, there are some things that you can do to help your child sleep better.
Medication should only be used with children as a last resort. Instead:
- Establish a nighttime routine such as giving your child a bath, reading them a story and settling them into bed at the same time each night.
- Help your child to relax before bedtime by listening to soft music, reading a story together or giving them a gentle back massage.
- Avoid any stimulating activities like TV or video games for at least one hour before bedtime.
- Avoid giving your child any stimulants like sugar or caffeine at least a couple of hours before bed.
- Prevent sensory distractions during the night by using blackout curtains in your child’s room and seeing to any creaky doors or floorboards that might disturb them.
Melatonin: You might want to give your child a melatonin supplement before bedtime to help them sleep. Melatonin is naturally produced by the body, but if your child is not producing enough of it naturally, they may struggle to sleep. It is available in dietary supplement form and often used as a sleep aid or to help with jet lag. It can be useful for normalizing sleep-wake patterns in autistic children who struggle with sleep. So far, all research has found that it’s both effective and safe for children with autism.
Gluten and Casein-Free Diets
Some parents of autistic children believe that their children may be allergic or sensitive to gluten or casein found in food like wheat, barley, rye, and dairy products. If you suspect that your child has a food allergy, it’s best to take them for allergy testing and have this confirmed before beginning any special diet.
However, many parents of autistic children report the benefits of providing a Gluten & Casein Free (GFCF) diet to their child, including positive changes in speech and behavior. The benefits of this diet are based on the theory that autistic children are highly sensitive or allergic to foods containing casein or gluten and process the proteins and peptides in foods differently to neurotypical people. Some people believe that the brain of an autistic person treats these proteins like false opiate-like chemicals, leading to a reaction that causes a child to behave a certain way. The idea behind the diet is to reduce autism symptoms and improve cognitive and social behaviors and speech.
While researchers have found unusual peptide levels in the bodily fluids of some people with symptoms of ASD, it’s important to bear in mind that the effectiveness of a diet free of gluten or casein has not been supported by medical research. In fact, there is a severe lack of scientific evidence to determine whether or not this diet is helpful. If you want to try your child with the GFCF diet, the best thing to do is speak to your doctor beforehand.
While diet alone can’t reduce the symptoms of autism, there are definitely some steps that you can take with your child’s nutrition to help them be the healthiest version of themself.