Autism is a disorder that affects the brain development in children and is usually diagnosed by age three or four. It affects the child's social interaction and communication skills and it can limit behavior patterns. Autism is believed to be genetic but there are also environmental factors that are believed to influence the disease.
In recent years, reports of several studies done (mostly in alternative medicine) have suggested the idea that diet and food allergies could play a role in either causing or worsening autism. In particular, gluten (a wheat protein) and casein (a milk protein) were both believed to worsen the symptoms of a child with autism. It is believed that these food proteins are broken down into smaller proteins called peptides, that will function like narcotics in autistic children, worsening the symptoms.
My son's food allergy diagnosis came after his initial autism diagnosis. It was later found that all 4 of my children had allergies to gluten and casein with the older ones outgrowing it around ages 6-10. However, only one of the four ever displayed the symptoms and signs of autism. He now no longer displays symptoms of autism, although he is not on the same behavior maturity level as his peers. He has outgrown most of his food allergies and intolerances but still receives treatment for seasonal and environmental allergies.
We're unsure if he was misdiagnosed in the first place or if the food allergies somehow played a role in the severity of his autism at a young age. Diet change alone was not the only thing we did for him. Years of counseling and therapy on all levels- speech, behavioral, family, etc., have helped him learn to overcome many of the challenges he had when he was younger and when he carried the diagnosis of autism. The doctors will say nothing more than "Before he displayed the signs and symptoms of autism and now he doesn't". While he still has some symptoms on the spectrum, they are not enough for him to be considered autistic.
Autism is a touchy subject and a condition that still asks a lot of questions. Each time I write about it, I get my fair share of hate mail telling me to "check my facts" but the fact of the matter is that even the experts disagree on many aspects of autism, what causes it and what might treat it. I write from my 10-year experience with a child who was diagnosed, as well as my experience coaching children with autism and Asperger's. I'm not claiming to be an expert; only looking to share information and experiences.
I can't say it's fact that there is a link between allergies and autism but in my experience there is, on some level. My children's allergist as well as other medical professionals seem to think there is some type of link as well, even if we are not all 100% certain of what the link is yet.
The bottom line is this: if it helps a child to live a more productive and functional life, does it really matter who is right and who is wrong? I want what's best for all of my children, regardless of labels or conditions. If changing their diet helps, I'm going to do it.
Note: Changing and/or restricting your child's diet should only be done under the supervision and advice of your doctor. This is especially true when limiting important nutritious foods such as milk and wheat. It's important to be sure you are replacing these omitted foods with something equal so that your child does not suffer from malnutrition due to restricted diet.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
Sources and references:
Millward C, Ferriter M, Calver S, Connell-Jones G. Gluten- and casein-free diets for autistic spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2004, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD003498.
Kidd PM. Autism, An Extreme Challenge to Integrative Medicine. Alternative Medicine Review. 2002; 7(6):472-99.
Sun S, Itokazu N, Le HT, et al. Innate Immune Responses and Cytokine Production Against Dietary Proteins in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Those with Dietary Protein Intolerances. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2002; 109:S222.
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