It is now estimated that the prevalence of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) lies between 1 in every 100-200 children under the age of 5 years, with ADHD and related behavioural syndromes more than ten times as common. Worryingly, there is also evidence that this incidence is at best static and may be increasing further.
With no definitive cause and no gold standard programmes of prevention and treatment, health professionals as well as parents have a keen interest in any intervention be it nutritional, pharmacological, or social that may show symptomatic improvement.
One of the most intriguing areas of interest is the potential role of fats and fatty acids in ASD, anAd this is grounded by our increasing awareness of the importance of fats in the composition and function of our neural tissues including the brain.
Omega-3’s Are Reduced In Neural Tissues In ASD
Over 60% of the weight of neural and brain tissue is fat, with just two fatty acids: the omega 3 fatty acid DHA and an omega 6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid comprising over half of this total.
It is now well documented that children with ASD and ADHD have reduced status of these long chain fatty acids particularly the omega-3’s and that the severity of symptoms is correlated with the degree of omega-3 deficiency.
One theory is that sufferers of ASD and ADHD may have altered metabolism of omega-3’s leading to wastage of these valuable fatty acids in non specific energy production producing a deficiency in their intended use in the structure of neural tissues and neurological signalling.
As such it would be logical to assume that increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids either by dietary or supplementation means may resolve this deficiency and produce symptomatic improvement.
Does Supplementing With Omega-3’s Work?
Although the anecdotal evidence of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is strong, the controlled trial evidence for therapeutic intervention of fatty acids in both ADHD and particularly autism is sparse.
Encouraging results were found by Richardson & Puri (2002) who selected children who expressed the co-morbidities of symptoms of ADHD combined with learning difficulties (mainly dyslexia). Providing the active group daily for 10 weeks with 480mg DHA, 186mg EPA, 96mg ALA resulted in:
1) Significant improvements in Four global scales of ADHD measurement and three out of seven sub scales of the comprehensive Connors Parent Rating Scale (CPRS-L)
2) Numerical but not significant improvement in two further global scales
3) One global scale showed no improvement.
This result is very encouraging and it indicates the likelihood that intervention with fatty acids needs to be of long duration using relatively high dose of a mixture of DHA and EPA.
As mentioned above, many parents of ASD affected children observe significant benefits from the supplementation of omega 3’s and as they are perfectly safe the guidance has to be ‘…give it a try’.
Even this however can prove tricky as getting ASD children to take fish oils either in liquid form or the numerous capsules required to provide a reasonable dose can be a difficult task.
Fortunately, there are now some omega-3 products - both fish and cod liver oils - which have been developed specifically to overcome these palatability issues. Of particular interest are the products which have emulsified using a process called WisdOM-3. A trial published in the prestigious Nutrition Journal in 2006 found that omega-3 oils emulsified with WidOM-3 doubled the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids. Apparently they taste very good too so getting children to take them should be less of a battle!