Sunday, January 11, 2015

Autism and Special Diets

A report released in an issue of Pediatrics states that there is no proof that special diets help or don’t help children with autism.  The study was conducted by a panel of 28 experts made up of professionals from 12 scientific disciplines, including child psychiatry, pediatric allergy, pediatric gastroenterology, and pediatric nutrition. The panel evaluated scientific evidence regarding gastrointestinal disorders in all forms of autism across the spectrum and concluded that there is no evidence that digestive problems are more common in children with autism compared with other children, or that special diets help alleviate some of the behavioral problems associated with autism.

Like any research released about children with autism, the report sparked some intense debate.  One reason for the controversy is that many parents say that restrictive diets have helped their children by combating symptoms and behavior problems of autistic children. What’s important to note however, is that the panel did acknowledge in their report that many parents and medical professionals have reported improvements in autistic behaviors after dietary treatment, but that these observations aren't based on controlled, scientific studies. In other words, they are anecdotal. Many parents try the restrictive diets after hearing anecdotes from other parents but this is not proof enough for scientists and doctors. Additionally, usually these children are receiving other treatments (i.e. special education, speech therapy, behavior intervention, etc.) which only confounds the conclusion that the diets are the sole responsible, or responsible at all for the improvements.

Based on the research, the panel concluded that there is still no proof that special diets help or don't help autistic kids -- or that food allergies, food sensitivities, or gut problems cause autism. Harvard's Timothy Buie, MD and chair of the panel noted "Anecdotal reports that restricted diets may ameliorate symptoms of ASDs in some children have not been supported or refuted in the scientific literature, but these data do not address the possibility that there exists a subgroup of individuals who may respond to such diets."

Bottom line? Because of the anecdotal evidence, a parent with a child with autism may be inclined to try a special diet. But as with any alternative treatment, we strongly recommended that a child following a restricted diet be carefully monitored by a nutritionist and a medical professional.


Daniel Adatto, BCBA

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