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Towards a Better Understanding of Diet and Autism

For decades, doctors have long believed that diet played an important role in curbing the symptoms of autism and might even help to decrease the severity of the symptoms in some individuals. As such, doctors have focused on putting children with autism on special diets that would reduce their digestive symptoms, such as casein-free and gluten-free diets.

For a long time, parents looking for drug-free ways to help with their child’s symptoms have relied on removing gluten and casein from their children’s diets. To recap, Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and casein is a protein found in milk and dairy products. Some researchers have argued that children with autism have trouble breaking down these two proteins during digestion. As a result, they develop what is known as a leaky gut, which causes physical discomfort and behavioral symptoms. Therefore, removing these problematic proteins from the diet of a child with autism should reduce some of their discomfort

Researchers at the University of Rochester recently sought to uncover scientific evidence backing this long-held theory, and their findings were recently published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. What they found might disrupt the commonly held belief that casein and gluten help to diminish an individual’s symptoms.

In order to learn more about the effects of casein- and gluten-free diets, the researchers at University of Rochester followed a group of children, aged between 2-5 years old for twelve weeks, all of whom were on strict casein-free and gluten-free diets. Soon after, snack foods containing gluten, casein, both, or a placebo that contained neither, were reintroduced into the children’s diets.

According to one of the researchers, Tristram Smith, “the diet was safe” due to strict nutritional monitoring, since “no significant changes were found when the children were given snack foods with gluten, casein, or both, compared to placebo.”

However, a year-long study conducted at the University of Oslo in 2002 by Karl Reichelt did show that implementing such a diet did have a positive impact on the behavioral symptoms of children with autism. In response to the new research, Reichelt stated that “the design for this [new] experiment was very good, [but] the time for the diet was too short.” He went on, claiming although “this complex developmental disorder is not usually quickly changed,” any study “not longer than three months is the stuff of fairy tales.”

So while this new study is likely to be met with a fair share of skepticism, it is still remarkable for offering the first scientific evidence that a casein-free and/or gluten-free diet might not actually reduce symptoms of autism.