Autism and Your Child’s Diet

Autism is a neurological condition that generally occurs within the first couple years of a child’s life.  It can have an impact on both their social and communication skills.  The cause of autism is unknown and the theories behind why it occurs in some children can be highly controversial.

The number of children diagnosed with autism is increasing and it is 4 times more common in boys than girls.  If you are the parent of an autistic child, you are constantly searching for answers and possible solutions.

One of the possible solutions that has made headlines is that following a gluten-free, casein-free diet will help alleviate the symptoms of autism.  Gluten is a protein found in rye, wheat, or barley.  Casein is a protein found in dairy foods and it is also added to many other food products.

The theory behind this diet is that gluten and casein can ‘slip through’ the guts of children with autism, get into their bloodstream, and alter their brain and central nervous system.  While we have no conclusive studies to back this up, some parents report an improvement in symptoms when their child follows this special diet.  This is not an easy path to take but can certainly be explored if parents are interested.

What do we know with certainty?  Some autistic behaviors can impact food choices and ultimately nutrient intake.  These can lead to some health concerns as noted below by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

  • Limited Food Selection/ Strong Food Dislikes. Someone with autism may be sensitive to the taste, smell color and/or texture foods. They may limit or totally avoid some foods and even whole groups of foods. Common dislikes include fruits, vegetables and slippery, soft foods.
  • Not Eating Enough Food. Kids with autism may have difficulty focusing on one task for an extended period of time. It may be hard for a child to sit down and eat a meal from start to finish.
  • Constipation. This problem is usually caused by a child’s limited food choices. It can be remedied through a high-fiber diet, plenty of fluids and regular physical activity.
  • Medication Interactions. Some stimulant medications used with autism, such as Ritalin, lower appetite. This can reduce the amount of food a child eats, which can affect growth. Other medications may increase appetite or affect the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. If your child takes medication, ask your health-care provider about possible side effects.

If you are concerned about the above behaviors or are interested in more information about the gluten-free, casein-free diet, please FIRST discuss with your pediatrician or dietitian to ensure this is both appropriate for your kiddo and correctly done.


By Louise Goldberg, RD, CSP, LD, CNSC

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