How Do Diets Affect Kids With ASD?

[ By R. Alexandra ]

Autism Spectrum disorder commonly referred to as “ASD” is a term used to describe a complex developmental and neurological condition that has been known to become more apparent in kids in their toddler years. To date, there is no single cause known for ASD, although both genetics and environmental factors are considered to play a role. Children with autism are often picky eaters. Some children have difficulty with digestion and absorption. Food can affect their lives either by alleviating their symptoms or affecting their behaviours impacting their social lives. To gain more understanding of the topic we turned to Dr. Ng Sui Yin MB.ChB (Bristol), MRCP (London), MRCPCH (UK) AM (Mal) Consultant Paediatrician & Child Neurologist Gleneagles Hospital Kuala Lumpur

RC: How does a bad diet affect the behaviour of an autistic child?

Dr. Ng : “When it comes to diets many times we hear the term good or bad diet, rather than referencing the term good or bad we must take a deeper look into individual foods and understand the cause and effect on each child. Food is important for everyone. This is particularly so for autistic kids. Certain foods can cause the following symptoms in children with ASD, such as irritability, aggression, hyperactivity, anxiety, sleeping challenges, headaches, inappropriate laughter and self-injury.”

RC: What are some diets that have shown to aid in ASD?

Dr. Ng : “A common diet that has long proven to help ASD children is the GFCF diet, gluten-free/casein-free diet. This diet follows the strict elimination of foods containing gluten commonly found in wheat, oats barley, and casein found in milk and other dairy items. Whilst having their children on the diet many parents have reported positive changes in speech and behaviour, though this isn’t a one size fits all situation. In some cases, the children might have persistent symptoms of irritability, hyperactivity, aggression, and irritability even after 6 months of the diet. This is where further attention to Salicylates/phenolic amines and histamines should be made as well. These are all compounds found in the foods that we consume and also shown to affect a child.”

Other diets that have also shown to aid with ASD are as follows:

RC: What are some of the benefits of these diets?

Dr. Ng : : “Over time these diets may help to reduce headaches and meltdowns, limit the frequency of the child being overly emotional with waves of crying and anxiety. And from a behavioural perspective, they show less defiant acts and even learn to focus more.”

RC: How do we track progress for diets like these?

Dr. Ng : : “These diets can be very restrictive and it is vital to remember that every child is different. Some of these diets may not even be needed for long periods of time, especially if other underlying factors improve. This is why it is important for families to work with a physician and nutritionist who are well versed with autism diets that can help monitor a child’s growth and underlying nutrient deficiencies.”

RC: What is the recommended time period for kids to be on these diets before significant changes can be seen?

Dr. Ng : : “For ‘GFCF diets’ changes can be seen as early as 1 week or as late as 4 months. With further addition to dietary changes like the elimination and monitoring of ‘Phenol/Salicylates/Amines diet’ changes can be seen as early as 2-5 days or may take up to 3-4 weeks. Last but not least with ‘Low oxalates diets’ the effects and changes are gradual and slower the first signs may take weeks or even months. Thus, it is important to be patient and work with someone knowledgeable about the diets.”

RC: What are some of the side effect that may occur before a child adjust to these diets?

Dr. Ng : : “With a ‘GFCF diet,’ a child may initially face withdrawal symptoms as the body adapts to not having the “opiate-like” effects from gluten and casein. But it is important to note that this phase does not last forever. “When going on a ‘Low oxalates diet’ a child may feel worse, especially if oxalates levels get lowered too quickly. Researcher Dr. Susan Owen recommends reducing oxalates intake gradually by 5-10% per week. If people are on several thousand milligrams of oxalates a day it could take a few months to get down to a low oxalate level.”

Take-home messages

  • Look at symptoms and food that they eat, it will evolve over time. It depends on how much the gut has healed and other underlying biochemistry.

  • Work with a practitioner that is well versed with autism diets and has treated a wide range of autism patients.
  • If one diet doesn’t help the child and the child still has medical, behavioural, and sleep issues, don’t give up. Keep looking for more answers.
  • Addressing the underlying biochemistry can help one evolve the diet over time.
  • Many chronic medical conditions have a similar underlying biochemistry and, similar dietary principles can help..>
  • There are variabilities among autistic children. It is not a one size fit all. We want to remove things that are causing problems and add good nutritious food that will help the child.