There is still so much mysticism around Autism—what affects the symptoms and what causes higher sensitivities. Information sharing is a key method for continuing to educate and enlighten. This article is meant to provide insights on major dietary factors affecting Autism, and provide additional resources where you can learn more. We were inspired by our partners at Autism Hope Alliance to spread the word on how dietary changes can improve the lives of those living with Autism.
Changing the diet of Autistic kids.
A story of tough love...
Amanda is a mother of two autistic boys who are ironically on opposite ends of the Autism spectrum. She had a nagging voice telling her that convenience foods and processed groceries were not the answer to long-term vitality. Even though these quick-fix foods kept her two sons happy and helped avoid drama at mealtime—she knew, deep down—that this type of diet was a total disservice to her kids.
A close friend suggested testing the boys’ hair samples to get an initial baseline of allergies, deficiencies, and intolerances. The results that came back from the hair test were alarming:
- High levels of metals
- Signs of inflammation
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Allergies or intolerances to gluten and casein.
After digesting the results, the next steps were to clean the family’s diet. Anyone living with Autism knows how hard these changes were: several days of uncontrollable tantrums and wild emotions. Outright refusal to eat. Amanda’s boys were in a rage that the foods that made them feel happy and provided the sameness they needed were no longer an option.
It took tough love, but Amanda stuck to the dietary changes. One new habit the boys did enjoy were the daily gummy vitamins that she began giving them to correct their deficiencies. Patience on her part was the most important ingredient in the changes she was making with diet. After weeks and weeks of trial, error and food replacements—her boys began to come around to the changes. Due to communication inabilities, she’ll never know if he sons accepted the changes because of her persistence (and their lack of other options) or if it was because they truly felt better.
A year after the diet overhaul, Amanda had hair samples retested. She was elated at the molecular level of positive changes:
- Major reductions in heavy metal levels
- Reversal of vitamin deficiencies
- Drastic reductions in inflammation symptoms
Yet it's the behavior and quality of life of the boys that is the true testament of the power of a clean diet.
- Only days after removing gluten, casein, and processed foods, the general demeanor of the two boys was much more balanced. Reactions to the environment were less severe.
- Weeks after the dietary change, Amanda could tell that tantrums were significantly reduced.
Dietary facts for those with Autism.
Parents who have explored the hidden dangers, effects and reactions to certain foods likely agree with these dietary facts:
- A person’s chemical make-up and level of health affect their sensory system. For those with Autism, their sensory system is already on overload.
- The gut and the mind are connected. When someone with Autism has inflamed gut, reactions are amplified and expressed in reactive moods.
- Understanding nutritional deficiencies and food intolerances provides the opportunity to drastically improve the whole health of a person, especially those as sensitive to environmental variables.
Food-related sensory dysfunction for those with Autism.
The list of Autism sensory dysfunction indicators is long. Here, we are discussing just one: being very particular about foods. Texture, taste, smell—even color and position of foods—are characteristics that can be naturally amplified or averting for someone with autism. They crave sameness, making for very picky eaters, obsessive behaviors with food, and mealtime drama when change trumps consistency.
Imagine how hard that is—the idea of a meal or a snack not necessarily be a positive encounter, but possibly a recurring trauma. The goal then is to eliminate or reduce this dysfunction with food. How we recommend doing this is by removing the foods that harm and replacing them with foods that heal. And while the task is not easy—simply due to those with Autism being very particular about foods—the rewards are absolutely worth the challenge.
Chemical make-up of the body and effects of imbalances.
The second layer to sensory dysfunction looks inside the body, where environmental and dietary chemicals, compounds, additives, etc, are affecting and influencing how the sensory system operates. Essentially, the body’s sensory system is directly connected and impacted by the gut.
“While the precise links between the gut microbiome, the brain and autism are not yet clear, we’re certain there’s a strong relationship that affects outcomes and quality of life for people living with autism,” says Autism Speaks Senior Director of Discovery Neuroscience Daniel Smith, PhD. “This study brings us one step closer to understanding this relationship. It also highlights the need to take a ‘whole body view’ to develop autism treatments.” Read more from this 2013 study here.
If the gut is inflamed, hostile, and unhealthy, then the sensory system may not be able to operate properly. It’s also thought that some of the inflammation that happens in the gut can actually make its way to the brain, affecting behavior. Symptoms and side effects of an unhealthy gut include:
- Digestive issues
- Sugar cravings
- Moodiness, anxiety, and depression
- Bad breath
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Skin problems
“A lot of kids with Autism have yeast overgrowth - and sugar feeds yeast. It’s also reported that Autism may present higher sensitivities to casein, which is found in dairy products,” shares Kristin Selby Gonzalez. As the founder and president of Autism Hope Alliance, she speaks with thousands of families on the topic of diet.
“So many kids are addicted to gluten and dairy. When those triggers are removed, see great physical responses”, such as:
- Talking more
- Better eye contact
- Improved behaviors
Improving diet in order to improve behavioral response and quality of life.
So how do you move forward with this education into action and change? Diet changes may be particularly difficult if Autism is involved, but it will be worth it. In order to prioritize what changes need to be made, get answers to these questions by working with your team of doctors:
- Do we have any allergies or intolerances?
- What deficiencies do we have?
- What can be solved by diet changes?
Foods that can heal and protect.
Nature provides most of the healing tools our bodies need. Make a commitment to incorporate more of these.
- Apples and legumes: fruits and vegetables rich in pectins are known to have chelating effects on heavy metals.
- Fruits with vitamin C: These possess strong antioxidant properties—and can become your sweets of choice. The best are cantaloupe, kiwi, mango, papaya.
- Dark green leafy vegetables: Chlorophyll can protect against heavy metals intoxication. Aim to get kale, spinach, microgreens, cabbage and romaine incorporated into nearly every meal.
- Onions, eggs and garlic: High-sulfur containing organic foods are also advised for protection against heavy metals intoxication.
- Nutritional supplements: magnesium and selenium are considered possible antidotes for many heavy metals.
Options to replace gluten, dairy and sugar.
Although it seems overwhelming, removing gluten, dairy and sugar from a diet isn’t terrible. There are great products that you can find in most grocery stores. Some, the taste is very different, but others taste nearly identical!
- Gluten-free flours: Rice flour was one of the original gluten-free options, as was soy flour. Now, almond and coconut are trending favorites. The consistency, flavor and baking behavior is different for all gluten-free flours, so start small, try a few, and then experiment more with your favorite.
- Nut milks: The variety continues to grow, and each one has a different flavor. Try coconut milk, almond milk, cashew milk, hemp milk. You’ll even find blends of some of these, both in unsweetened (recommended if you’re also removing sugar) and sweetened varieties.
- Monkfruit sweetener: The most natural sugar substitute, and most comparable in flavor and usability. Monk fruit is our speciality, and loved by kids everywhere. Shop our monkfruit sweetener options, or any of the other many responsibly-sweet products we create with monkfruit!