Tips and Strategies

With 30 years of data supporting growing evidence that dietary intervention is an effective treatment for autism, all too often we hear …

  • My doctor says there’s nothing to this diet thing.
  • My kid never has diarrhea so he’s not a candidate for the diet
  • That diet’s too hard.
  • My kid is picky. I don’t want him to go hungry.
  • My child could never live without pizza!
  • I’m afraid I’ll make too many mistakes – and then it will be my fault.
  • The school simply won’t do the diet.
  • I don’t want to manipulate their nutrition.
  • Children need milk!

Dietary intervention is a cornerstone of a evidence-based medical approach, and there is convincing empirical evidence that special diets help many with autism. A group of parent leaders who successfully implemented diets for their children compiled the following information and suggestions. These include references, resources, and links to aid parents as they begin exploring effective, evidence-based treatments.

Remember: Medical treatments might not be as effective if the diet is not sound, so overcoming these challenges is a crucial first step in meaningful intervention.

Remember also: Your child is an individual. And the only way you are ever going to learn if this is an effective intervention for him/her is to give it an honest trial. Most experts agree that a strict trial of at least three months is needed to determine if a special diet will help. If there are no improvements after three months, you can feel confident that you have made a good try without a major financial investment.

Pitfall #1: Listening to Scoffers

Solution: Historically, many doctors have scoffed at the idea that diet, food additives, sugar, etc. can affect behavior. They believed that there was no supporting scientific evidence. During 2008, this turned a corner, when the American Academy of Pediatrics recognized and published the change.

They now admit,“…we might have been wrong…” This statement, made by the editor of AAP Grand Rounds, refers to the article “ADHD and Food Additives Revisited” by Alison Schonwald. Read online.

Thousands of parents throughout the world have placed their children on special diets and have observed dramatic improvements. You can begin to educate yourself on these dietary options through your own reading and research.

ARI Webcasts

ARI’s ‘Science Behind GF/CF Brochure’

Scientific Publications:

  • Knivsberg, Wiig, et al. “Dietary Interventions in Autistic Syndromes’ Brain Dysfunction 3 (1990) 315-317
  • Knivsberg, Reichelt, et al. “A Randomised, Controlled Study of Dietary Intervention in Autistic Syndromes”
    Nutritional Neuroscience 5 no.4 (2002) 251-26

Pitfall #2: Caving in for “Special” Occasions

Solution: Food-oriented holidays and family celebrations can be tricky, but you can say, “My child can’t eat that particular treat, but here’s a great substitute that is okay for him/her.”

  • Keep emergency snacks and treats with you.
  • Give Grandma/neighbor/school a chance: share a list of “safe treats” ahead of time. That way, others can buy or make them themselves.
  • Call hosts, family, friends ahead of time and briefly share your child’s dietary needs. Explain why you need special food, and tell them you will be glad to provide it if that solves the problem.
  • Supply food substitutions quietly. If you don’t mention it, others won’t notice and your child won’t feel singled out.
  • Educate your child about allergies (therapists, teachers can help) – help them learn to advocate for themselves and make safe choices.
  • Remember that special occasion food does not have to be gluten- or casein-based. There are many good, naturally gf/cf foods that are appropriate for every holiday and for all friends and family members.
  • Offer to bring “special” foods that are suitable for everyone, for example, bake appropriate cupcakes for all the children at a birthday party, or bring mashed potatoes made without milk to Thanksgiving dinner.

Helpful Resources:

ARI’s “Why My Child is on a Special Diet” brochure

Pitfall #3: Unexpected Exposures in Foods

Solution: Many processed foods contain gluten, wheat germ, (barley) malts, casein, caseinates, whey, and other no-nos in tiny amounts. Read the fine print on the label. However, that isn’t foolproof, so it’s wise to call manufacturers.

If your child reacts or acts up after a meal that included a processed or canned food, be suspicious. Keep a written record, and watch for this to occur again. Not all labels list gluten/casein additives. Examples include canned tuna and salmon, which might contain casein that isn’t on the label. Sometimes ingredients change before the labels do, so if a child reacts to a food that was tolerated previously, call the manufacturer and ask about ingredient changes.

Pitfall #4: Hidden Exposures to Gluten, Casein, and Foreign Substances

Solution: Be vigilant about hidden sources of exposure – for example, hand-to-month ingestion of non-foods can be a real problem. If your child touches homemade playdough (composed primarily of all-purpose flour) and then proceeds directly to snack time without washing hands, gluten can easily be ingested.

Some common exposures parents report include:

  • Glue, paste, stickers with adhesive, lickable envelopes
  • Toothpaste
  • Gum
  • Makeup: lipstick, foundation, lotions, etc. (from contact with caregivers’ skin)
  • Eating paper
  • Play clays and puttys
  • Also be aware of inhaled particles, such as: wheat protein in hairspray, flour in the air during baking, etc.
  • Pet food
  • Crumbs in sofas, food dropped in cars, shopping carts, theaters
  • Over-the-counter and prescription medicines
  • Cross contamination in kitchens – on the grill, in the fryer, on the slicer, etc.
  • Cleaning materials

Note: Although they are not GF/CF diet concerns, it’s crucial to avoid environmental chemical and allergen exposures as well. Use air re-circulation in the car when you can to lower exposure to exhaust, pesticides, etc. In public buildings, particularly schools, work to eliminate use of toxic magic markers, cleaning supplies, chlorine, and flame retardants. Request no idling school busses near the classroom buildings. In the home, avoid pesticide use, use “green” cleaning materials, avoid fragrances, fabric softeners, aerosol products. If the outside air is noticeably polluted, you can filter it using your air conditioner, and keep those filters clean. (And when the outside air is clean, open up your house to ventilation.)

Pitfall #5: Not Understanding Food Sensitivities vs. Food Allergies

Solution: Understand that there are two categories of food allergies: immediate, and delayed reactions.

When most of us think of food allergies we think of an “IgE (immunoglobulin E) response – those that create an almost immediate reaction after eating a problem food. Symptoms include rashes, nasal congestion, coughing, wheezing, closing of the throat, and GI problems from slight nausea to diarrhea. In extreme cases anaphylaxis can occur. Less commonly understood are “IgG” (immuno