Autism and Intolerance

Autism and Intolerance

With Food Allergy and Intolerance Week taking place from the 23rd - 29th January 2012 we have been looking into various types of allergies and intolerance.

There is a suggested link between food intolerance and autism, with some people hinting that following a restricted diet could present a possible autism 'cure'.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them.

It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. (

Autism is a disability and not a disease and it soon became apparent that a special diet would not provide a cure and that there is little scientific research confirming a direct link between autism and food intolerance.

Someone with autism is just as likely to suffer from a dietary intolerance as anyone else.

So, you won't cure someone with autism by changing their diet but if someone who is unable to communicate effectively is in pain and they are suffering - by eliminating the pain you may feel that you have indeed found just that. Milk Cookies

Some parents have found that certain foods do have an effect of their childrens' behaviour and discovered varied results in following a restricted diet.

With a high percentage of children on the autistic spectrum already suffering from a poor diet because of sensory difficulties or uncontrollable self restriction, it is not advisable to further restrict their diet without professional advice.

Suddenly deciding to eliminate certain foods from a diet is not advised and if you are concerned about a food intolerance in yourself or your child, it is vital that you consult a doctor or nutritionist before you embark on any kind of restricted diet.

What do we know?

We know that problems with acid reflux, chronic constipation and abdominal pain, amongst other things, are commonly reported by people with autism.

If a child with autism is suffering from acid reflux but is not able to explain why or where they are in pain, the symptoms may instead manifest themselves in the form of self harm, aggressive behaviour or tantrums; borne from the frustration and pain.

If you follow a selective diet and remove the offending food group, you remove the pain and the child will obviously feel more comfortable - possibly appearing calmer and more 'socially acceptable' in their behaviour.

This is NOT curing autism but simply the removal of a painful symptom of a debilitating condition - one that many people, with or without autism, suffer from.

Most people, including those who have suffered from acid reflux, would agree that relief from pain in itself is a reason to feel more settled and calm.

Unfortunately, people with autism can also have difficulties in achieving a balanced, nutritional diet for many reasons, which includes sensory difficulties, only wanting to eat items from specific food groups, plus rejecting new or unknown foods.

Parents with a child on the autistic spectrum can possibly regale you for hours with tales of food fads and peculiarities. Many have developed recipes and become increasingly creative in their cooking. All just to ensure that their child eats as balanced a diet as is possible.

Suddenly deciding to eliminate certain foods from your diet is not advised and if you are concerned about a food intolerance in yourself or your child, it is vital that you consult a doctor or nutritionist before you embark on any kind of restricted diet.

The Source spoke to Dr Gina Gomez-de-la-Cuesta, Action Research Leader for The National Autistic Society, to find out more.

Q. Do people with autism need a different standard of healthcare?
A. People with autism should receive the same standard of healthcare as anyone else, regardless of their diagnosis.
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Q. What evidence is available to prove a link between autism and intolerance?
A. So far, there is very little scientific research investigating the link between autism and gastrointestinal problems or food intolerances. Research looking at the prevalence of gastrointestinal problems in ASD ranges from 9% to 70%, and it depends on the methods used so we really don't know for sure how common it is. There is no specific gastrointestinal problem that is unique to autism - people with autism can get the same issues as anyone else.

Q. Do people with autism commonly suffer from stomach complaints?
A. The most common gut problems reported by people with autism are acid reflux, chronic constipation, abdominal pain and encopresis (involuntary soiling). The hypothesis that people with autism have immune deficiencies that affect the gut has not been proved, and the evidence for abnormal gastrointestinal permeability ("leaky gut") in autism is limited.

Q. Do all people with autism have food intolerances?
A. A subgroup of individuals with autism may have food intolerances, just as members of the general population may have. These individuals may benefit from special diets.

Q. Is it easy to follow a restricted diet?
A. Gluten free/casein free (GF/CF) diets are difficult to follow strictly, and should be carried out following advice from a professional (GP, nutritionist). Individuals with autism may suffer from poor nutrition due to limited/ restricted diets (for example only wishing to eat certain foods or certain brands), so adding an extra restriction in the form of a GF/CF diet should only be done with caution and with professional advice.

Some individuals and parents of children on the spectrum report benefits from following special diets, however, adequate research has not been done to confirm whether or not they are effective, and they should not be regarded as a treatment for autism, rather a treatment for gastrointestinal problems. There may be a subgroup of individuals on the autism spectrum who respond to dietary intervention, but available research data do not support the use of a GF/CF diet as a primary treatment for autism.

Individuals with autism who have communication difficulties may not be able to tell you when they are in pain. So a child with stomach ache may express their pain in terms of behaviour. So pain should be considered as a cause for challenging behaviour, and not just an inevitable part of autism. Signs of distress and extreme pain may be misunderstood and ignored as "typical autistic behaviour". Gastrointestinal symptoms, particularly acid reflux are a common reason for self injury.

Q. Are all people with autism the same?
A. People with autism are individuals, so what works for one person may not work for someone else. Each individual case should therefore be looked at as unique.


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