Why diet is important
Autism can affect your child’s eating habits in different ways. Food sensitivities, meltdowns at mealtime, or ritualistic behaviors towards food can all contribute towards your child developing nutritional deficiencies. Inadequate nutrition can in turn lead to poor mental and physical development, or diseases like obesity and heart disease. This article aims to help you navigate mealtimes with your autistic child, and make sure that they get the nutrition that they need.
Autism and the Gluten Free Casein Free(GFCF) Diet
Many children with autism tend to complain about gastrointestinal issues, including:
- Stomach discomfort
- Bloating and gas
- Food allergies or intolerance
- No meaningful two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
- Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age
- Does not respond to name by 12 months
Though there is no official scientific consensus, some parents see an improvement in their child’s symptoms when casein (milk protein) and/or gluten (wheat protein) are removed from their child’s diet. This diet, called the Gluten Free Casein Free (GFCF) diet, is safe, but must be carried out under the supervision of a dietitian to make sure your child gets the proper nutrition they need.
The GFCF diet involves removing casein (found in all milk and dairy products) and gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, and some oat products) from your child’s diet. Milk, cheese, yoghurt, pasta, bread, and ice cream, etc. should all be strictly avoided. However, be careful what processed foods you allow your child to eat because these may also contain ingredients made from gluten or casein. Foods like hot dogs, salad dressings, sauces, and even margarine, for instance, may all need to be avoided. Be very vigilant about checking labels, because the GFCF diet only works when these proteins are completely eliminated from your child’s diet.
Though there isn’t enough evidence to officially support and recommend it, some studies show that the GFCF diet improved symptoms related to hyperactivity, tantrums, speech, and seizures for children who followed the diet very closely for at least 6 months. Note that the diet does not help all autistic children and seems to have the most impact on those with chronic dietary issues.
Working with a dietitian is crucial because they can help you plan meals and make sure your child is getting adequate nutrition. The GFCF diet can be highly restrictive and can put your child at risk of malnutrition if it is not implemented properly. A dietitian can prescribe any supplements or multivitamins if and as needed.