Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that is usually diagnosed in early childhood and typically persists into adulthood. Every child has a unique presentation. Core features include difficulties with social communication and interaction (which can vary significantly in severity), but children frequently have other (co-morbid) conditions, such as digestive and sleep issues, which are not core features of autism.
The mainstream approach to autism primarily involves specialist educational and behavioural programmes that focus on communication, social interaction, imaginative play, and academic skills.
A complementary approach is known as the biomedical approach. This typically refers to a group of interventions which are designed to stop, or at least reduce, the effect of biomedical problems (such as gastrointestinal abnormalities, immune dysfunctions, detoxification abnormalities, and/or nutritional deficiencies or imbalances). Core biomedical interventions include special diets and nutritional supplements, and many practitioners will use biochemical or functional tests to measure biomarkers in urine or blood.
There is a lot of scepticism about this approach from healthcare and other professionals. For example, they may say that there is no evidence that a special diet will help. The accounts of thousands of parents who have successfully used a biomedical approach does not count as evidence, because within mainstream medicine, the only type of evidence which actually counts as evidence are properly conducted scientific studies which pit one approach against another in a controlled setting (a randomised controlled trial or RCT). It would also be true to say that there is absolutely no evidence that (for example) a special diet doesn’t work – the trials have not been conducted. In autism research there are significant ethical hurdles and funding issues. Medical research is largely funded by commercial pharmaceutical interests with the aim of creating a patentable drug treatment which can be sold for profit (to fund the cost of the research and provide shareholder value). Drug treatments have not been found to be particularly successful in autism, probably due to the homogeneous nature of the condition (there are a multitude of probable causes and each individual is so unique), so there is no real value to the investor in drug research.
If you are considering taking a biomedical approach to autism, then a quick Google search will reveal an absolute mass of information, books, testimonials, videos and products for you to navigate which is quite frankly bewildering. Again, because of the heterogeneous nature of autism, there isn’t a clear pathway to follow. So, where do you start, and whom do you trust? You might read some apparently ‘miracle’ success stories where a parent has used a single intervention, but for the majority of cases, progress is typically slow and steady, halting at times and usually requires a multi-pronged approach. We would always recommend a biomedical approach alongside educational and behavioural programmes.
The first thing to really appreciate is that there is no one-size-fits-all diet that will be right for every child – and therein lies the complication. The most important consideration of course is that no harm comes to the child. And that is why working with an appropriately trained, qualified and experienced practitioner who can work with you and your child to develop an individualised programme is key.
However, there are some things that you can do yourself at home which can only be helpful. Children with ASD are usually very sensitive individuals, and often have food or sensory issues, so the most important piece of advice is to make changes very slowly and gradually, and one at a time.
Reduce or eliminate sugar: begin by cutting out the obvious sugar. Don’t be tempted by alternative sweeteners. Dilute juices gradually until they are water. Reduce the amount of carbohydrate (rice, pasta, bread, potato etc) to be about a quarter of the meal or snack. Reduce the sugar effect of the carbohydrate by increasing the amount of protein, fat and fibre that the meal or snack contains. For example, add olive oil, fish and vegetables to pasta.
Eat unprocessed food: try to move to real food so that you can control the ingredients. For example, make the switch from a store-bought smoothie, by gradually adding increasing amounts of a home-made version. Ice-cube trays of blended fruit, seeds, coconut milk can help with the practicalities of this gradual transition.
Pollution: avoid outdoor and indoor pollution as much as possible. Avoid heavy traffic and busy roads. Keep indoor pollution to a minimum – ditch the deodorisers, fragrant fabric softeners, air fresheners etc. If you need a fragrance in the home, use pure essential oils such as lavender and chamomile.
Support healthy immunity: don’t over-sanitise – some level of exposure to germs helps the normal functioning of the immune system. Many children will benefit from probiotic supplementation, especially if they have had antibiotics.
Gluten and casein-free diets are actively discouraged by the NHS and other authorities as being ineffective and potentially dangerous. However, the vast majority of parents report them to be incredibly effective. Making such dramatic changes to a child’s diet should be done only with the appropriate supervision.
At the Brain Bio Centre, we are passionate about helping parents and carers to support their children (and adults) with autism to have the best possible outcomes and quality of life. Please contact us to find out how we can help you.
Written by Deborah Colson, MSc DipION
Deborah has 13 years experience working as a nutritional therapist at Food for the Brain’s not for profit clinic, the Brain Bio Centre.