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Corrin Ainley
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Nutrition and Autism Spectrum Disorder

by on 26 May, 2014


There are a number of dietary and nutritional treatments available to help children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These treatments have helped thousands of children and adults improve overtime, usually slowly and steadily but sometimes dramatic results are seen.


Commonly used interventions include special diets, gastrointestinal treatments, natural supplementation, high dose vitamin B6 and magnesium and chelation therapy. This article is focused on providing an overview of the connection between gastrointestinal abnormalities and autism.

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are commonly seen in children with autism, and occur in much higher numbers when compared to groups of the same age and gender 2. GI symptoms include constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain and esophagitis 3. Interestingly studies have also found a correlation between the severity of GI symptoms and the severity of autism 2.

The consequence of digestive disorder can be extensive, including malnutrition, allergies, poor immunity and subsequent influences on mood and behaviour, all of which are commonly seen in children with autism.

To combat this problem, many parents choose to implement a special diet which aims to remove certain foods that negatively affect the digestive system. One of the most common being a Gluten free/Casein free diet. In a study of 150 children with autism, 87% had IgG antibodies (an indicator of an allergy to gluten) vs. 1 % in the control group, and 90% had IgG antibodies to casein vs. 7% of controls 4.

Gluten (a protein found in wheat and other grains) and casein (a protein found in dairy products), can cause problems in several ways; in children with digestive dysfunction certain peptides from gluten and casein can enter the blood stream and bind to opioid-receptors in the brain. This has the potential to have a potent effect on behaviour, causing problems including sleepiness, giddiness, inattention and aggressive and self-abusive behaviour. Like opioids, these peptides can be highly addictive, with a lack of them causing severe behaviours.

The evidence for this theory is limited, however, parents may observe signs its occurrence, including cravings (breads, pasta, dairy) fussy eating, aggressive behaviour when they cannot have the food they crave and withdrawal symptoms. The Autism Research Institute collected data from more than 27,000 parents to identify the effectiveness of biomedical treatments, and in this survey 69% of parents reported improvements in their child behaviour when using a gluten free/casein free diet 1.

Although not widely researched, pathogenic gut bacteria may well be a contributing factor. Research has confirmed that the use of oral antibiotics in children with autism is much higher than the general population 6. One round of oral antibiotics typically kills off over 99% of beneficial gut bacteria, but has little or no effect on yeast or many types of bad bacteria, leading to bacterial or yeast overgrowth. Neurologist and Nutritionist Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride has extensively researched the connection between gut microbes and their influence on autism and other psychiatric disorders. In her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome 5 Dr Campbell-McBride discusses how pathogenic bacteria inhibit the proper breakdown of food, compromise the integrity of the lining of the gut, release neurotoxins that influence mood and behaviour, cause severe nutrient deficiencies, allergies, eczema, asthma and poor immune function. She further states that imbalances in gut microflora are one of the underlying causes in the pathology of autism, and has developed a treatment protocol to heal the digestive system and re-inoculate the gut.

The use of probiotics, special diets and enzymes are commonly prescribed for this treatment and can be used in combination or individually.

As many children with autism are fussy eaters and may have digestive dysfunction, it is likely that multiple nutrient deficiencies are also present. Malnutrition, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies place a heavier burden on a child who is already overwhelmed and overloaded. Even if the digestive system is in good working order, fussy eating can make it very difficult to provide a child with essential nutrients and in these cases the use of natural supplements can be very helpful.

There are many natural treatment options that this article has not covered. As individual as each child with autism is, there are likely to be different genetic and environmental factors involved, and therefore the successful treatment for one child may have little benefit to another. Fortunately, many of these treatments are safe and inexpensive, and when guided by a professional with experience and knowledge in autism and nutrition, parents can be guided to the best treatment approach for their child.

Article written by Corrin Ainley – Nutritionist Adv.Dip Nut.

  1. Autism Research Institute. Parent Ratings of Behavioural Effects of Biomedical Interventions. ARI Publ. 34/March 2009.
  2. Adams JB, Johansen JJ, Powell LD, Quig D, Rubin RA. Gastrointestinal flora and gastrointestinal status in children with autism -- comparisons to typical children and correlation with autism severity. BMC Gastroenterol. 2011; 11:22. doi: 
  3. Buie T, Fuchs GJ, Furuta GT, Kooros K, Levy J, Lewis JD, Wershil BK, Winter H. Recommendations for evaluation and treatment of common gastrointestinal problems in children with ASDs. 2010;125(Suppl 1):S19–29. doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-1878D. [PubMed][Cross Ref]
  4. Cade R, Privette M et al. "Autism and Schizophrenia: Intestinal Disorders" Nutr. Neurosci 3 (2000) 57-72. Published by Overseas Publishers Association, (OPA) N.V.
  5. Campbell-McBride N. Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, ADD/ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Depression, Schizophrenia 2010, Medinform Publishing, ISBN 13:9780954852023 ISBN 10:0954852028
  6. Konstantareas MM, Homatidis S: Ear infections in autistic and normal children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 1987, 17(4):585-594.

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