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Real Food and My Child’s Autism Diagnosis

Can gluten cause behavioral symptoms? Is there a link between food and autism? 

When my eleven year old son was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism last year, I had no idea how much the everyday details of our life would change.

He had been struggling and exhibiting signs for years, so I wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis itself. In fact, once the very real, very shattering oh my goodness my child has autism and there is nothing I can do to change it grief lessened, I actually felt a kind of relief. I thought it would be obvious now what we needed to do to help him.

Oh my goodness, was I wrong.

real food and autism

It was anything but obvious. One doctor would give us one bit of advice. The next would contradict it. One book would say to address something immediately, the next would say wait. It was like being a first time mom again – completely unsure of what to do next.

This was especially true in the realm of eating, food and autism.

It started even before the official autism diagnosis.

My son was having violent, self harming, destructive meltdowns every single day. In a desperate attempt to help, we spoke with a biomedical nutritionist.

Food and Autism: Finding Our Own Way

This “doctor” (yes, the quotes are intentional) told me I would need to give her my credit card information over the phone before we could proceed. When I asked her what for, she simply stated, “I will give you what you need to be a warrior mom for your child. You need a specific diet plan and many supplements that only I can provide for a monthly fee.” I hastily made an excuse and hung up.

I burst into tears as I realized this was not going to be as simple as I thought. My son was suffering, all the time. I needed answers, but I also needed compassion with a little common sense thrown in.

It’s not that I didn’t want the help. I did.

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to change our eating habits. I was.

It wasn’t the message. It was the way this person interacted with me that made me uncomfortable. The I have all the answers without even knowing or ever having met your son approach did not sit well.

Over the course of the next two months, I heard several versions of this same thing – “Pay me and I will come up with a food strategy for your son that will help with his behavior.

I also heard several versions of, “There is no scientific basis for any of that. There is no link between food and autistic behaviors.”

I wanted to scream.

The reality is, no one child on the autism spectrum is the same. My child has massive sensory issues that dramatically affect his life, and he has a genius level IQ. Another child we know is the exact same age, with the same diagnosis, and has the exact opposite – no sensory issues at all, but a lower than average IQ.

What this means is no expert advice, no set of therapies, no book on Amazon, no other mom with a child who has autism will absolutely know what to do to help.

Since I am the person closest to my child, and his eating habits for that matter, I decided to take some time before working with biomedical experts and see how I could impact his diet on my own.

Based on some initial online research, my own observations of my son, and a book from Amazon, I made a list of three priorities:

1. Autism Foods to Avoid: Identify any Gluten/Casein Allergies or Sensitivities

The first thing every resource suggested is eliminating gluten and/or casein (dairy) to determine if any sensitivity exists.

I already had some experience with this. When my son was a baby, he was extremely sensitive to my breast milk when I had consumed dairy products. I eliminated dairy from my diet for two years while he nursed and the impact was obvious and measurable. In addition, I generally had him avoid dairy until he was around 5 years old. When we added it back in, I didn’t see the same symptoms as when he was a baby (mostly eczema and nasal congestion) so I allowed it in his diet.

Fast forward 5 more years…we went right back to where we started and eliminated dairy entirely.

It. Was. Rough.

He craved dairy. He would beg for a glass of milk or cream (yes – he LOVES fresh cream and half and half). He lost it every night over not being able to have ice cream for dessert. But after two weeks, there was an obvious change in his ability to remain calm under stress. His complexion improved. He had more energy.

Occasional treats of ice cream showed obvious and immediate behavior changes. Once it would leave his system he would calm down. It wasn’t too difficult to completely cut out these treats.

We tried the same thing with gluten, but it did not have the same dramatic effects. Instead of eliminating gluten entirely, we chose instead to eat more whole grains and make our bread from scratch whenever possible.

Please let me stress, every child is different. As much as eliminating milk products helped my son, some families report no change at all. For some, gluten was the game changer. For others, nothing seemed to help. That’s why I think mommas can and should be part of the conversation in determining how to best treat their child and their diet.

Real Food and autism

2. Foods for Children with Autism: Add Real Food Into Our Diet Wherever Possible

I was a single, working mom for many years. In those days, my goal was to not eat fast food more than once a day. (I wish I was joking. Please have grace. I was so stressed and never home. It was the best I could do at the time.)

When I began staying home with my children, part of that included moving away from eating fast food. It also included serving more foods made from scratch. When it became clear that my son has a very special brain chemistry, it just made sense that preservatives, additives, artificial colors, and food dyes might be affecting that brain chemistry. It was time to really step up my efforts.

RELATED: Here’s how to avoid food coloring!

One of the very first things I did was change where I shopped. Since this was all relatively new to me, it was easier to just frequent more natural food stores than the regular grocery chains or Target. It was a quick way to help me get on track. Once I was a little more familiar with what to look for when shopping, and understood what my family liked and didn’t like, I was easily able to find food that would meet our needs in other stores.

Katie here! One of my favorite places to save money on healthy food is at Thrive Market! Read my review of Thrive here.

The added benefit was actually saving money. I assumed I would have to just make room in our budget for the increase in food prices at natural stores. What I found is that with less options, I just bought less overall.

This is also when I started avidly following natural living blogs, including Kitchen Stewardship®. Having wisdom and recipes and encouragement one click away made it feel so much more achievable – even to a recovering fast food restaurant momma.

real food and autism

3. Involve My Autistic Son with Food

My son is eleven. He is not a toddler who simply eats what I put in front of him. He has his own preferences and interests and expectations when it comes to food.

In addition, because of his sensory processing issues, he struggles with eating in general. Texture, taste and smell can overwhelm him very easily. Even the chair and the way it feels to sit at the dinner table has been something we have dealt with for years (to date we have changed out his chair four times in an attempt to find one that is comfortable and allows us to require him to eat at the table with the family).

In order for this to be a long term solution, I knew that he needed to feel involved and in control of the changes we are making.

Here are some of the simple ways he has been a part of this shift in our home:

  • He has his own budget at the Farmers’ Market or the store each week. He can choose to buy anything he wants that we consider “healthy.”
  • He is involved in preparing and cooking as much as possible (I am really lucky here – Alton Brown is his hero so science in the kitchen is kind of his thing).
  • He helps with any gardening we do, including choosing what we will grow and researching the best soils and techniques for our climate.
  • He chooses his treats and splurges. I allow them.
  • He mixes up natural cleaners and toothpaste for me.
  • He finds recipes he would like to try.

All of this has helped to make this shift much more fun. It has also allowed him to understand that this is just part of how he lives his life (something I am hopeful will carry over into adulthood!).

 

If you’re tired of saying,

“I just want my kids to eat what I make!”

… you’re not alone! Join us for the FREE No More Picky Eating Challenge on Kids Cook Real Food.

Everyone can win at the game of dinner!

These changes have helped my son, to be sure. They have also changed the way our entire family eats and cares for our home.

We have so far to go. I know many families who are much further along in their commitment to more natural living and eating. If you are a momma, wondering where to start or what to do next, I want to encourage you to just take time and try new things.

There is no deadline and no finish line.

Small changes over time, add up. If we can do it, I know you can too!

Katie Here – Checkout this helpful autism meltdown guide!

Have you made any changes in diet for your family? What benefits have you seen with food and autism?
Shawna - Not The Former ThingsShawna Wingert writes about motherhood, special needs and the beauty of everyday messes at Not The Former Things. She is a special needs advocate, speaker, and writer and has participated in parenting discussions on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Autism Speaks, The Mighty, For Every Mom, and The Huffington Post.

She is the author of three books – Everyday Autism, Special Education At Home and Parenting Chaos. Shawna lives in Southern California with her voice actor husband and two awesome sons.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from which I will earn a commission. See my full disclosure statement here.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

35 thoughts on “Real Food and My Child’s Autism Diagnosis”

  1. Thank you so much for this. I have two children, both on the autism spectrum. I don’t know for sure if I am on the spectrum but I have issues of my own and can somewhat relate to my kids. Needless to say I have been lost. We have been searching for answers for years but no one seems to be able to help us. I am going to try what you suggested however I am feeling a little discouraged because my son is extremely picky and refuses to eat most of what I cook (especially healthy food) and my daughter is a little more willing to try new foods but she wants to eat all day long (mostly junk).

    1. Hi Marianne,

      This is Mary, one of Katie’s team members. That is such a challenge! But don’t lose hope. The picky eating and junk food eating are both symptoms of gut issues and totally related to the ASD. I have a book Why Won’t My Child Eat?! that you might find helpful. http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/whywontmychildeat
      Also, here is a post I wrote on how I got my daughter to eat again: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2016/03/14/one-year-old-eat-recipe-squash-milk/

      Never hesitate to ask questions.

  2. We have done a LOT of healing through dietary change in our family. It is so good to read of others who are fighting that battle as well in a society where the food culture has been, frankly, mostly harmful to my family. GAPS has been the biggest game changer for me. And now I have yet another new thing in my journey to true wellness. Keep up the good work warrior women!

  3. Thank you so much for writing this, Shawna. I can relate to the feeling of hopelessness and conflict that fills your world when someone you love receives a diagnosis like this, and you just want to help them.

    My husband has Asperger’s, chronic asthma, and a few other chronic health issues. Every doctor he’s been to has told him that diet doesn’t play a part in his symptoms – despite the myriad of published studies showing the benefits of various nutritional supplements or specific diets.

    Lo and behold, when I finally said “enough is enough” and started making small, steady changes in our way of eating, hubby’s health started improving. But of course that’s nothing to do with eating real food and avoiding sulphites and other known triggers for his health conditions – it must be the new combination of meds he’s on, or a change in the weather, right?

    We’ll keep baby-stepping towards the GAPS diet, one real food change at a time. It’s working for us so far, and that’s the main thing.

    1. It’s amazing the difference that changes in diet can make in our loved ones lives. I am so glad you persisted and are finding out what works for your husband!
      Thank you for sharing your experience.
      Shawna

  4. Kayla via Facebook

    I don’t have time to read it right now, but I do know someone who’s child is autistic. They changed to a real food diet, and the child now interacts almost completely normally with others. It was an unreal transformation. Food is important, and not a choice to take lightly. 🙂

  5. God bless you! I can identify with you somewhat as my son was diagnosed with ADHD and it has been a journey also. We figured out around Christmas last year that it was the food dyes in the food that were causing some of his hyperactivity. We saw some changes by eliminating them. We have also gone to making most everything from scratch since dyes are in everything… He just turned 7 and he checks the ingredients for yellow no. 5 or other dyes if he is away from us at school as he can tell also the effects they have on him. I just ordered an older book by Dr. Doris Rapp called Is This Your Child? I have read reviews and comments by others on how she explains how to identify food allergies and food journals to help with this and how some doctors still recommend this book for adult patients. I hope this will give me some insight in this. Thank you for the name of the book that you read as it sounds like he may be on the same track as Dr. Rapp and I will definitely check it out. We also scrimped and saved our money and made the investment in a VitaMix . We had been investigating who had the best deal and ran into one at Costco when they were having their traveling Vitamix sale. The guy that we bought the VitaMix from told us his daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD and so he was like us eliminating everything. He recommended a book called Green for Life and I have been reading that and trying some of the juice ideas and trying to get my son to try it. He loves the Blender and asked every night if I am going to make something from the blender….We also use some essential oils on him in the morning to help him concentrate.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It is amazing how much of a difference we can see in our children’s behavior with a real foods approach.
      Praying for you and your family!
      Shawna

  6. Shawna I totally connected with you on this. My stepson is Intellectually Disabled. He is 13 but very much still an 8 year old. We have started to control more of his diet since I started to research sugar(which I find affects him and how he looses focus). Also since I am in remission from Breast Cancer, we really overhauled our menus and cleaning products. Most items I make myself and started cooking more at home, buying from farmer’s markets, and using supplements and vitamins. This year he will be taking his lunch to school the majority of the time, we are very anti-GMO! Thank you for allowing us into your private life, and giving me hope!

    1. I really appreciate you sharing your experience, Kimberly. It is wonderful that you are finding ways to help your stepson, and I am so grateful to hear you are in remission. Praying for you and your family right this minute.
      Shawna

  7. Sarah Mueller

    What a tough time you’ve had with this diagnosis! It sounds like you’re making tremendous progress for your son. Congratulations on making some hard changes and fighting for your son.

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah. It has been a much more difficult road than I anticipated, but one that has taught me so much about being a momma and relying on God to direct my steps.
      I really appreciate your encouragement and kind words!
      Shawna

  8. Just wanted to say kudos to you for working so hard to find some ways to help your son. As a parent of a small child that had catastrophic epilepsy I know about the endless research and just how incredibly hard it can be to figure out how to help them. So thankful that you know that the Lord covers our failings, don’t know how we would survive this path without that.

  9. Kimberley via Facebook

    Changing to a whole food, no chemical diet worked for my son! 🙂 We used the GAPS diet and it worked great.

  10. Okay. I gotta ask this. Everybody recommends farmers markets for people on a budget. The few I have gone to seem way overpriced. I would love to buy local, but $4 for a thing of kale? Really? It’s half that at Kroger. I looked into CSA but the cheapest one I could find still came out to $27 a week, for the small size. To me that’s a lot for produce, for two adults and two toddlers. My question is: are these prices typical? Should I adjust my expectations? Sometimes I wonder if they’re capitalizing on the real food movement and jacking their prices up.

    1. I have had a similar experience, Karen. I am fortunate enough to live in an area with several different farmers markets. The one that I first visited was a little more “fancy” and the prices were much higher than the store. I looked online and found another market, actually closer to our house. It has no bells and whistles, but the people there are very sweet to my boys and the prices are much cheaper. If you can’t find the same near you, I would encourage you to frequent some of the natural food stores in the area and get to know their pricing strategies. I can find produce for less than stands on the side of the road at the store in my area if it is a sale price.
      I am so glad you asked. It is a very real question!
      Shawna

    2. I’m sure it depends on your market and your area. We have some “touristy” markets that are more expensive than other community-focused markets in our area.

      Also, it seems like the best way to get savings from a farmer is to buy from him in bulk (and preserve the extras!), or maybe some seconds (slightly blemished items he doesn’t want to ask full price for). Also, if you shop from the same vendors every week or two, they’ll get to know you and sometimes throw in a bonus.

      Buying local isn’t always cheaper than buying mass-produced because you’re paying the farmer a good wage for his hard work in the garden too. But it is often cheaper than buying the organic counterpart at a store.

      I’m sure others have a lot more wisdom than I do, but that’s what I’ve found!

    3. It really depends on the area. I think if you’re in the midwest, farmer’s markets are great (no middleman), but in my region (rocky mountain), they’re very pricey. I do much better at the local natural grocers, and they try to buy local anyways. Another option, and how I get pastured eggs for significantly less than their $6/dz going rate, is to find someone who is a hobby farmer – a neighbor with a little land who likes to garden and maybe keeps some goats and chickens. Since they’re not out to make “real” money, just fund their hobby or make a little extra, they will sometimes charge less.

    4. I know it is expensive but think of this- the produce is organic and not sprayed with pesticide or waahed in ingriendents to make them shiny! I gladly pay more for that! I buy what i can at the market the things i buy in the store i make aure they are organic and i waah them.

    5. Karen,
      That can be so true! I second the recommendation for bulk and seconds. For example, cukes and peppers (and yes, kale!) are about equally priced or even a bit higher than the store at my markets…until they’re in PEAK season. If I can buy a half bushel basket of peppers, I’m golden. But it has to be when they’re super in season, which is sometimes only a few weeks for a certain veggie. Hope that helps you find some deals! 🙂 Katie

  11. Yes we have changed our diet, just two weeks ago. We ate what I thought was a very healthful diet and no junk. Come to find out beans, rice, nuts and whole grains- the staples of our low budget diet- were causing his problems!
    So now I am on a mission to have a Paleo diet with dairy, if we are using names. Not easy with 9 mouths to feed and a low income. So I am constantly on the web searching for help. I enjoyed your post!

    1. Thank you so much, Tami. I am really encouraged by your experience (oh my goodness, you are figuring this out while feeding 9! You are an inspiration!).
      Praying for a smooth transition, lots of sale pricing on real foods, and for your momma’s heart.
      Shawna

    2. Tami, have you looke into preparing your beans, grains, rice and nuts using the Weston Price model? Soaking grains, rice, nuts and beans eliminates harmful enzymes and makes nutrients more readily available. Just food for thought. You can look up methods for soaking on pinterest or search engines too.

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