Diet May Help Autism

October 26, 2008 – 6:27PM

Gwen Conner gently held her son’s face between her hands in hopes that he would make eye contact with her.YumaSun

His eyes avoided looking at her until she could almost could no longer see his pupils, she said.

She remembers he would rarely cry or make any baby sounds. Whenever she would come by him, he didn’t acknowledge her. Conner noticed that there was a problem with bonding. Conner’s son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2-1/2 years old.

Children with autistic disorder can display a wide range of deficiencies in moderate to severe communication skills, social skills and behavioral problems, according to “The Autism Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know About Diagnosis, Treatment, Coping, and Healing” by Karen Siff Exkorn.

The three most common early symptoms of autistic disorder are a lack of eye contact, a lack of pointing and a lack of responding.

After doing extensive research, Conner learned about how a casein/gluten-free diet can help improve symptoms in autistic children.

That same day, she said, she emptied out the fridge and restocked it with gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) foods “because it is harmless and because it is worth a shot.”

“I say that one never knows whatever this diet can do to help, maybe it can take you one step closer to recovery. I tried it because I know there is no way it was going to hurt him at all.”

The casein/gluten-free diet eliminates all foods that contain gluten, wheat, oats, barley and rye. All dairy products, which are a source of casein, are banned.

A week later, she noticed immediate results. “His spinning slowed down, he wasn’t as hyper … now he’s petting the cat and the dog. Before, he didn’t care if I was there and now he kisses and hugs.”

Autistic children tend to have food allergies and overactive immune systems, said Dr. Cindy Schneider, who treats individuals with autism and other developmental disorders at the Center for Autism and Research Education in Phoenix.

Their immune system is automatically making antibodies against their brain tissue, so anything that triggers an immune response – including a food allergy – is going to make the situation worse, Schneider said.

“The biggest offenders for autistic children are gluten and casein because they tend to have difficulty digesting the foods.”

For example, the amino acids in a warm glass of milk can help induce sleep in some individuals. But autistic children, whose digestive tracts generally don’t break it down very well, can experience an exaggerated morphine effect.

“So whenever your brain is inflamed, you’re not going to have normal behavior or normal concentration, learning or anything else,” Schneider said. “They can become hyperactive, irritable, their self-stimulatory behavior goes up … like meaningless behaviors like hand-flapping, rocking and saying the same thing over and over again … the autistic behaviors escalate.”

Alma Short’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. He’s now 4 years old and has been on the diet for about a year.

“It’s been one of the hardest things to do … to keep up with it,” Short said. “But I have seen great improvement with that diet. I saw little changes right away and then within months, my son’s social interaction increased.”

Short said she was a skeptical about trying the diet because she wasn’t sure of how her son would respond to the meals, but therapy and the diet helped him on the right track.

“I would never remove my kid from the diet. It’s amazing to see that my kid can actually recognize everybody. And he calls me mom … when it was just a blank stare before.”

Schneider, who also has two sons with autism, advises that any mother who wants to place her autistic child on the diet first seek the guidance of a physician or a nutritionist because the child may be a picky eater. That will ensure the child receives the needed nutrients.

Michelle Vielbig said her 5-year-old son has been on the casein/gluten-free diet for almost three years now. “The diet changed his life. It really did.”

It was hard work for her son to start the diet, she said, because he was used to drinking almost half a gallon of milk a day. “He would stand in front of the refrigerator for hours and scream. It wasn’t easy.” Vielbig said.

But within two weeks, her son began speaking for the first time – although “it was pretty much not functional language, it was just language. After we started the diet, the first thing I noticed was he actually realized that people came in and out of the room…”

Conner, who is director of the Yuma Autism Support Group, says this natural approach is good start for mothers who are hesitant about placing their child on trial medications for autism.

“I won’t go back. He’s going to be on this diet for the rest of this life and he’ll continue the diet when it is his turn,” Conner said.

For learn more about GFCF meal recipes, e-mail Conner at [email protected]

Stephanie Sanchez can be reached at [email protected] or 539-6847.

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Hi, I’m Julie Matthews, a Certified Nutrition Consultant, Author, and Published Researcher. I teach parents and practitioners that children with autism, ADHD, and related disorders can improve and heal, and that there’s hope for their children. Then I educate and empower them to make strategic dietary changes that positively affect children’s health, which in turn helps their learning and behavior. With 17 years of experience and my unique range of knowledge, from nutrition research and clinical experience to cooking in the kitchen for my own family, I’ve created a much-needed community for parents and practitioners looking to help children with autism live happy, healthy lives. Join us.

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