What's the Scoop on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Nutrition?

By Wallace, Lee Shelly | The Exceptional Parent, February 2009 | Go to article overview

What's the Scoop on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Nutrition?


Wallace, Lee Shelly, The Exceptional Parent


There is much discussion among families, on the Internet, on TV shows, and in many books about the relationship between nutrition and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are claims of diets that will "cure" ASD: gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF), specific carbohydrate diet (SCD). There are claims of benefits by adding nutrients to the diet, such as vitamin B6 and magnesium, vitamin B-12, or essential fatty acids. All of these possibilities can leave a parent wondering what to do: Where do I start? Should I buy a book or find an Internet site and just begin? Do these diets and supplements really help someone with ASD? Should my child's pediatrician be told?

While there are many food-related issues for people with ASD, including mealtime and eating behaviors, medication and nutrient interactions, and gastrointestinal problems, this article will 1) define an "evidence-based" treatment, 2) give tips on how to set up and evaluate any treatment plan for your child, 3) summarize some of the popular diets and supplements and how they claim to benefit those with ASD, and 4) examine how to evaluate some of the current nutritional theories.

Evidence-based Treatment

Special diets and supplements are often called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. Complementary therapies complement or are in addition to conventional treatments or therapies. Alternative therapies are instead of conventional treatments. While professionals may not often recommend CAM therapies, they will usually support a family who chooses to use them. If a parent is interested in trying a CAM therapy, it should be discussed with the child's pediatrician. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a whole series of fact sheets on "Caring for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders." Their policy statement in 2001 encourages pediatricians to become familiar with popular CAM treatments for children with ASD. Also, the assistance of a registered dietitian who has experience with people with ASD can help ensure there are adequate nutrients for the child to grow normally, especially when a child's variety of food intake is self-limited or when limiting groups of foods, like gluten or casein, are removed from the child's diet.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Evaluating Research

One child's success with a treatment intervention does not make a study. What works for one child may or may not work for another. But a success can point a caregiver in a direction that could include many possibilities. When a parent is reading about these or other treatments, they should be evaluating the theories the same way medical and health professionals evaluate evidence used to support ANY therapy by looking at:

* How the research study was done. The most desirable is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled design. This means children in a study are placed randomly into two or more groups, and no one in contact with them knows whether they are receiving the treatment or not. Using a placebo means that one group will get the treatment and one (the control, or placebo, group) will not. This is much easier with a drug, for example, than with a diet.

* How many children or people participated in the study. An adequate number of participants are needed to support the statistical analysis--enough people or children are needed to show that it generally works or doesn't. The results of ten thousand children in a study can be generalized to other children more easily than a study with 10 children.

* Whether the study included homogenous, well-defined, and matched study participants. This is the most desirable scenario. This means that children in the control group are similar to those in the treatment group. If there are four-year-old girls in the control group and nine-year-old boys in the treatment group, the groups could not be compared as well statistically as two mixed groups of boys and girls, ages four to seven, in both the control and the treatment group. …

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