Food Matters for Autism: The Science and “Why” of Special Diets

Food is important for everyone and all conditions, at all ages and stages of life.  I cannot think of a single condition where diet is irrelevant.  Can you?  It is no different for children with autism.  They need good food and nutrition.  They need to avoid foods their bodies can’t digest or that can create inflammation and other negative reactions.  They, just like all of us, need to eat foods rich in nutrients to support cellular and body functions.

Parents report positive changes to health and behavior when applying special “autism diets” which involve removing offending foods and boosting the nutritious foods children eat. They are realizing that they can affect their child’s health through these calculated omissions and additions to diet. Since parents determine what their children eat, implementing a diet is an empowering step parents can take to help their child(ren) feel better, reduce their autism symptoms and help them pursue their full potential.

Here is some current knowledge, science, and research about food/diet and autism:

  1. Children with autism have problems with certain foods that affect their behavioral, cognitive, and physical symptoms.1,3,5
  2. Food has a direct effect on the gut, intestinal inflammation and digestive capacity—which in turn affects physiology and brain function.2, 4
  3. Nutrient deficiencies are common with autism.6,7,8
  4. Gut problems and insufficient digestive enzyme function are common.9
  5. Digestion, detoxification and immune function are often affected.
  6. Dietary intervention influences these disordered systems seen in autism:
  • The gut is considered the “second brain” and the “gut-brain” connection has been studied in autism.10
  • Healing the gut positively influences the brain.
  • Addressing digestive issues increases nutrition absorption. As nutrient status improves, systems function better—including the brain.
  • Removing foods containing toxins (such as artificial additives) that adversely affect brain chemistry relieves a burden on the liver and detoxification system and affects improvement in brain function and behavior.11
  • By avoiding inflammatory foods (gluten, casein and others) we support immune and digestive systems.

When you see how much food matters, it’s easy to understand why most people who try dietary intervention benefit! The Autism Research Institute (ARI) surveyed thousands of parents and found that 69% of those applying the Gluten-free Casein-free Diet (GFCF) saw improvement. For the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), 71% noted improvement. In recent autism diet research funded by Autism Speaks, 82% of parents reported “definite improvement” in their child’s skills. Parents report improvements in eye contact, language, attention, diarrhea, constipation, sleep, hyperactivity and more.

While “dietary intervention” (change) can seem overwhelming, with learning and focus, even busy moms and dads can, and do, make it work. As a child feels better, parents often have more quality time with their children and cooking becomes more enjoyable. And nutritious meals needn’t cost a fortune. While quality, whole foods involve more expensive ingredients; you’re buying fewer expensive processed foods. A healing diet empowers you to support your child’s health and improved well-being.

This is why I titled my book, Nourishing Hope. We need to nourish children’s bodies with healthy food, and nourish our minds and souls with hope. Food nourishes the body, and the positive changes we see nourishes hope. Healthy food preparation even transfers healing energy through the loving intention of the chef. With virtually no downside, everyone should give this a try.

Join me in nourishing hope.


By Julie Matthews, Certified Nutrition Consultant and Autism Diet Specialist with

  1. Jyonouchi H, Geng L, Ruby A, Zimmerman-Bier B. Dysregulated innate immune responses in young children with autism spectrum disorders: their relationship to gastrointestinal symptoms and dietary intervention. Neuropsychobiology. 2005;51(2):77-85.
  2. Knivsberg AM, Reichelt KL, Hoien T, Nodland M. A randomised, controlled study of dietary intervention in autistic syndromes. Nutr Neurosci. 2002 Sep;5(4):251-61.
  3. Lucarelli S, Frediani T, Zingoni AM, Ferruzzi F, Giardini O, Quintieri F, Barbato M, D’Eufemia P, Cardi E. Food allergy and infantile autism. Panminerva Med. 1995 Sep;37(3):137-41.
  4. Millward C, Ferriter M, Calver S, Connell-Jones G. Gluten- and casein-free diets for autistic spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;(2):CD003498.
  5. Reichelt KL, Knivsberg AM. Can the pathophysiology of autism be explained by the nature of the discovered urine peptides? Nutr Neurosci. 2003 Feb;6(1):19-28.
  6. Tapan Audhya, presentation at the Defeat Autism Now! conference, San Diego, October 2002. Audhya reported his measurements of vitamin and mineral levels in the blood of over 150 children with autism compared to 50-100 controls of the same age. He found that the children with autism on average had much lower levels of most vitamins (vitamins A, C, D, and E; all B vitamins except choline)  and some minerals (zinc; magnesium; selenium).
  7. MA Landgreme and AR Landgrebe, Celiac autism: calcium studies and their relationship to celiac disease in autistic patients, The Autistic Syndromes, Amsterdam:  North Holland; New York; Elsevier, pp. 197-205
  8. Alberti A, Pirrone P, Elia M, Waring RH, Romano C  Sulphation deficit in “low-functioning” autistic children: a pilot study.  Biol Psychiatry 1999 Aug 1;46(3):420-4.
  9. Horvath K, Papadimitriou JC, Rabsztyn A, Drachenberg C, Tildon JT. Gastrointestinal Abnormalities in Children with Autistic Disorder. J Pediatr. 1999 Nov;135(5):559-63.
  10. MacFabe, et al., Neurobiological effects of intraventricular propionic acid in rats: Possible role of short chain fatty acids on the pathogenesis and characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. Behavioural Brain Research. 176 (2007) 149–169
  11. McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, Kitchin E, Lok K, Porteous L, Prince E, Sonuga-Barke E, O Warner J, Stevenson J. “Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.” Lancel. Published Online, September 6, 2007. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3.

Photo Credit: milosz1, Flickr May 2, 2011.

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