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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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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!
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.