Dietary restrictions have become an important part of life for many autism families today. With biomedical treatments ranking high on the list of what parents claim to be effective in reducing traits associated with autism, special diets are usually one of the first interventions families implement. And often, one of the first diet families incorporate involves the removal of all gluten and casein in what is referred to as the gluten-free, casein-free (GF/CF) diet. In addition to anecdotal reports of improvement through dietary intervention, there is also science to back up the parental claims. According to researchers in a paper published in the journal Nutritional Neuorscience, “Our results suggest that dietary intervention may positively affect developmental outcome for some children diagnosed with ASD.” [i]
In discussing the alleviation of autism traits through diet, parents often refer to the existence of a “gut-brain” connection which is also supported by science. A Norwegian research team published a paper in 2010 which concluded that, “An effect of diet on excreted compounds and behavior has been found. A gut-to-brain axis is both possible and probable.” [ii]
While the success stories of dietary interventions offer hope to families affected by autism, following the restrictions imposed isn’t always easy, especially during holidays and birthday celebrations when off-limits dietary temptations abound. However, with the growing popularity of special diets within the autism community and beyond, healthful and delicious options to forbidden treats have become much more readily available to consumers. Increased options provide for increased likelihood of sticking to a GF/CF or other special diet, and there are some strategies parents have found helpful in maximizing the potential for success:
Explain the diet: Let anyone who has regular contact with your child, including friends and extended family members, know about the diet and encourage their support.
Plan ahead: Bake a batch of GF/CF cupcakes to keep in your freezer. When your child is invited to a birthday or other party, you can defrost one, add icing, and send this along to the party. Explain your plan with the party hostess in advance.
Establish a repertoire: As you discover your favorite special recipes, share and exchange with family and friends to increase safe options at potluck gatherings.
Be creative with treats: Remember that a “treat” doesn’t have to be something edible. For party favors or Halloween treats, consider stickers, pens, and inexpensive toys instead of candy or other sugary treats.
Communicate with school: Let your child’s educational team know about the diet and provide a friendly letter explaining it to parents who may be supplying treats at school functions. Supply your child’s teacher with enough safe snacks to cover any off-limits treats that may be available throughout the school year.
[i] Whiteley P, et al. “The ScanBrit randomised, controlled, single-blind study of a gluten- and casein-free dietary intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders.” Nutritional Neuroscience. 2010 Apr;13(2):87-100.
[ii] Reichelt KL, Knivsberg AM. “The possibility and probability of a gut-to-brain connection in autism.” Annals of Clinical Psychiatry. 2009 Oct-Dec;21(4):205-11.