Why does a gluten-free diet help autism (Part 1)?

Why does a gluten-free diet help autism (Part 1)?

One of the best-known diets for autism is gluten-free, but what does this mean, why does this work and how do I try it for my child?

In this post (Part 1), I will explain what a gluten-free diet entails.  Part 2 will explain why this is approach is worth trying and Part 3 will give you a framework to get started.

Part 1

Going gluten-free is the first step in changing the diet for your child with autism. It is usually done at the same time as removing dairy and soy.  This is often called a “Gluten-free, Casein-Free” (GFCF) diet (Casein is one of the proteins in dairy foods).

Various studies have shown that a GFCF diet leads to improvement in up to 80% of patients with autism.  The type of improvements were in behaviour, seizures, gross motor skills, social contact, eye contact, ritualistic behaviour, language and sleep.

It is up to parents if they want to remove gluten and dairy at the same time, or to do one at a time.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.  Removing both at the same time is like ripping off a band-aid.  Difficult, but the transition is over quickly.  Removing one at a time is a more softly-softly approach, but it may be difficult to make any progress. On the plus-side, a gradual reduction will reduce any withdrawal symptoms for your child.

Going gluten-free means you need to avoid any products made from gluten-containing grains.  These grains are wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut and triticale. Oats are a bit of a grey area as, whilst they don’t contain gluten, they do contain a similar protein called avenin.  Some people who are sensitive to gluten are also sensitive to avenin, but even most coeliacs are ok with avenin.  The problem is that quite often oats get contaminated with wheat, rye etc. during processing.  You can buy certified gluten-free oats which have been processed in isolation from gluten-containing grains and tested to make sure they don’t contain gluten.  Bear in mind that these gluten-free oats may not be made in Australia.  My recommendation is generally to remove oats for a period of time, and then reintroduce standard Australian organic oats and watch for a reaction in your child.  The reaction could be digestive, but it could also be mood or behaviour related.

Foods that you may not realise are made from gluten-containing grains include couscous, semolina and bulgur (the main ingredient in tabouleh),

Gluten also hides in many processed foods likes some processed meats, or anywhere a filler is required. If you buy packaged food, you need to read the ingredient list (and the allergen declaration) very carefully.  Remember that wheat-free does not mean gluten-free.

If you think going gluten-free is worth a go, you should commit to doing it 100% for 6-12 weeks.  There is no point in doing it 95%, as even a small exposure to gluten will undo all your hard work.  You might start to see benefits within a few days, which will be very motivating to keep going, or it might take the full 12 weeks to see progress.

If you have a suspicion that your child might be coeliac, because of a family history or other symptom, it is a good idea to do some testing for this to start off, e.g. taking with a cheek swab to see if they carry the gene.

The benefits of removing gluten for children with autism are strong, but this doesn’t mean your child is coeliac, or allergic to gluten.  Don’t be put off giving this a go because you have tested your child and they have been classified as not allergic to gluten.  There is no nutrient in gluten that you can’t get from other foods, so there is literally nothing to lose.

One final word of warning – you can have a gluten-free diet made entirely of junk food.  This will not help your child’s gut or improve their symptoms.  It’s ok to use some gluten-free processed food in the transition, but try to move to a whole-foods, naturally gluten-free diet as soon as you can.

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