Over a quarter of kids with autism spectrum diagnoses follow some kind of special diet. A gluten-free casein-free diet is the most common. Parents keep their kids on this heavily restricted diets because they say the diets work miracles. They’re reported to improve everything from sleep to gastrointestinal problems to behavioral issues.
Do they really work? Parents swear by them, but there’s no science to back up the claims. In this week’s Science of Kids column, my colleague Heather explores the truth about the autism diet.
Recent studies have shown no benefit to autistic kids following a gluten-free diet. The studies have been small, though, and the results aren’t definitive. Legions of parents believe the diets improve life for their individual kids. What’s going on?
One possibility Heather brings up is that a gluten-free, casein-free diet might just improve energy and focus for most kids. It may be that there’s a general benefit to following such a diet, that has been noticed and popularized among families of kids with autism.
She also reasons that a gluten-free diet might help some kids and not others because autism is really a collection of disorders. She writes:
My guess, though, is that science doesn’t match parent reports in part because autism is not one disorder. Hundreds of genes and an unknown list of environmental influences wrap together to produce the outward symptoms of what we know as autism — and in different combinations for different children. So far we don’t understand how to divide these children up in a meaningful way, we only know how to group them together and call it a “spectrum.” In reality, autism is probably multiple disorders, each with its own profile of genes, behavioral struggles, and physical symptoms.
For parents, she notes, the only evidence they need is the improvement in their own kids. Whether science supports it or not, there’s little risk and a lot of possible gain to trying out dietary restrictions as a treatment.
A gluten-free diet is a lot of work, though, and can be expensive to maintain in a healthy way. If this restricted diet is another form of snake oil being sold to desperate parents, is it really harmless? Might their resources be better spent on other treatment approaches?
Again, in the absence of more data, it’s impossible to say. What does seem clear is that more research should be done on how these diets benefit autistic children, if they do at all.
What do you think? Have you tried a GFCF diet with your child? Did it work wonders, or seem ineffective?