Does the Gluten Free - Casein Free Diet Have a Place in the Autism Community?

Jun 2 2014 - 12:43pm
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Surely we have all heard of using a Gluten Free Diet (GF), or Gluten Free - Casein Free Diet (GFCF) for Celiac Disease (CD). It is a must for people with it. Ingesting Gluten for an individual who has CD can actually become very painful. How many people have heard of using a GFCF diets for autistic children?

This diet started as something rarely heard of or used and has turned into a wide-spread, dare I say, fad amongst parents. Many professionals have even begun to refer to this diet as the “Autism Diet” because of how fast it has been adopted by parents without any “real” solid medical evidence of it working in their opinions.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a large sum of parents that swear by this diet, not to mention as a mother of an autistic child myself I have learned that sometimes it pays to listen to fellow parents rather than to professionals. However, when it comes to this topic, I personally have not formed any opinions yet. My 10 year old severely autistic son is currently on the Gluten Free Diet and has been on it for several months, yet I remain unsure.

What the GFCF Diet actually is
The Gluten Free - Casein Free Diet Diet is done in two different forms. They either use the standard GFCF rules. This necessitates removing all casein and gluten from your child’s diet. Some parents also opt to just follow a GF Diet with their child. A GF Diet only consists of removing gluten from the child’s diet. Researchers do advise that in children with gastrointestinal issues it is best to stick to a formal GFCF Diet. For further information as to how to follow this diet's guidelines see this story from Mayo Clinic..

The Parental Beliefs of GFCF Diet
The belief amongst parents is that this diet is beneficial because their child has an allergy or a sensitivity to gluten and/or casein, so in turn to the foods which contain them. To be more specific, some believe their child processes the peptides and proteins in foods that have gluten and casein in them differently than others do. They believe that, in theory, the difference in how the autistic child processes the peptides and/or proteins from how others do may in fact exaggerate their child’s autistic symptoms.

To add a little credence to this claim, researchers have, in fact, found irregular levels of peptides in bodily fluids of some people who have autism. Nonetheless, the success of a GFCF diet for autism has not been supported by medical research. A number of parents also believe that their child’s brain treats these proteins like false opiate-like chemicals. In turn the reaction to the chemicals leads their child to act in a certain ways. Some parents even seek out allergy testing to prove the purported allergy in their child. Even after the tests come back and tell them that there is no allergy they tend to still elect to use the Gluten Free - Casein Free Diet diet.

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From using this special diet parents claim they experience improvements in the symptoms of their child’s autism. Such benefits include claims of seeing improvements in:

• Gastrointestinal Issues
• Communication/Speech
• Social Behavior
• Sleep
• Meltdowns
• Maladaptive Behaviors
• Executive Functioning
• Their child is essentially “cured”

According to researchers 82% of parents surveyed about their child’s use of the Gluten Free Diet reported improvements. Specifically, a reported 27% of surveyed parents reported a high level of improvement in their child’s autistic symptoms. 19% report very high levels of improvement, 38% reported moderate improvements, and 16% reported minimal improvements. When surveyed parents have also reported there being a substantial financial burden in maintaining this diet. On average, costing between $101-500 more monthly to maintain.

The Scientific Arguments
Research remains pretty split as to if this diet offers any real benefits for autism. In the U.S. it is said that there is no real medical basis for the use of this diet in children without GI problems. Children with autism that have gastrointestinal problems have shown considerable improvements in their autism symptoms when following a GFCF diet though. Seeing as though around half of all children with Autism have gastrointestinal issues one can only speculate as to why this diet helps the autistic symptoms. I’d venture to say that if I had intestinal issues I’d have difficulty focusing and sleeping too. It’d possibly even contribute to a meltdown or two.

According to Penn State researcher L aura Klein, "There are strong connections between the immune system and the brain, which are mediated through multiple physiological symptoms. A majority of the pain receptors in the body are located in the gut, so by adhering to a gluten-free, casein-free diet, you're reducing inflammation and discomfort that may alter brain processing, making the body more receptive to ASD therapies."

In spite of how parents feel about the GFCF diet many U.S. researchers still remain fairly consistent when it comes to GFCF Diets providing no benefits to autistic children unless they have a true allergy and known GI issues. It seems the powers are slowly shifting to acceptance all over the world though. If you look to Danish researchers they will tell you that a GFCF/GF diet shows significant results in treating some autistic children without gastrointestinal issues after 8, 12, and 24 months on the diet. The science is ever changing, shifting more in support of this diet in some circumstances where 5 years ago they saw no benefits at all. I can’t wait to see what researchers say about it 2 years, 5 years, even 10 years down the road.

Reference:
PennState: Parents report gluten-, casein-free diet helps some kids with autism
IAN Autism Network: IAN Research Findings: Special Diets

Other Autism Related Stories by Brooke Price

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