The following article, “Parents Explore Diet and Autism” was reported by The Houston Chronicle regarding food sensitivities and allergies to foods containing Gluten and Casein as they relate to Autism.
“Very nasty, very foul odor and full of undigested food particles,” said Houston resident Michelle Groogan of her then 18-month-old son’s bowel movement. “It was the classic autism poop.”
Garrett was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, and Michelle Groogan began researching ways to ease her son’s digestive issues, which she felt were autism-related. It wasn’t long before she came across the Gluten Free Casein Free, or GFCF, diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. Casein is the protein in cow’s milk, as well as all mammalian milk.
“It was very overwhelming,” Groogan said. “I mean, everything has gluten and dairy in it.”
Groogan said health food stores and grocery stores such as Whole Foods make it easier to find GFCF foods, but it comes with sticker shock. She spends about $75 a week on Garrett’s food, the same amount she spends for food for the rest of the family.
“We had nothing to lose by trying it,” Groogan said. “Within a few months we started seeing normal stools. When his digestive system was feeling better, we noticed he picked up more language.” Garrett, now 6, has been on the diet for more than three years.
“It certainly hasn’t healed him completely,” Groogan said, “But we’re not ready to stop the diet any time soon.”
Katherine Loveland, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Center for Human Development Research at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, said the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement recently that said it’s possible that kids with autism have some problems that are related to gastric disturbances, but they do not see evidence that this is a cause of autism.
“That does not mean it might not be important,” Loveland said. “The percentage of kids with autism that has gastrointestinal difficulties can be 10 percent or 70 percent depending whom you study and how you study them. So it’s not clear how many of them have it, or how many are relieved of it through diet.”
Anecdotally, for some, the proof is in the pudding.
“The observer is biased,” Loveland said. “That’s one possibility. Or it could be that the child did have some gastric distress, pain they were not able to report, and the child is now more comfortable day to day, and therefore feeling better, so behaving better. To put it simply, it’s complicated.”
Sugar Land resident Scott Jackson said he heard about the diet after his son Tyler was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. “It seemed to be the first question people asked when they found out about Tyler’s diagnosis,” Jackson said. “We decided to give it a try because just like every family desperately looking for ways to help their child, we will try most things that can help, with or without proof.”
Tyler, now 5, spent about 10 weeks on the diet without any noticeable improvement, Jackson said.
Dr. Robert Sears, who will release The Autism Book in April, said any parent starting their child on the diet should give it a good six months, but children age 7 and older need at least a year. Food allergies, Sears said, are the single most common medical problem shared by children with autism. He devotes an entire chapter of the book to diet changes, in which he writes about the GFCF diet. He said one survey of 1,800 autistic children revealed 65 percent showed improvement on the diet.
He said chronic diarrhea resolves, first words emerge, hyperactivity diminishes, and potty training becomes easier.
Sears said the diet works best in conjunction with supplements, including digestive enzymes, probiotics, cod liver oil, vitamins and minerals.
Sears relates the stories of five families from his own practice who have had some success with biomedical treatments, including dietary changes and the addition of vitamins and minerals.
The children Sears talks about include those with classic regressive autism, which means kids who are “completely normal” the first year or two, and then go backwards developmentally, sometimes suddenly and dramatically. Sears drives homes the point by saying early intervention “can change a life.” He also says he has had cases of children who don’t fit the classic story of regressive autism with gastrointestinal symptoms, but who still benefit from the GFCF diet.
One such patient didn’t have constipation or diarrhea and didn’t regress socially or developmentally, but was quite developmentally delayed. The child was diagnosed with autism, and Sears said he showed improvement after going on the GFCF diet, and adding vitamin B12 and zinc.
Sears wraps up his book with a chapter titled “Prevention for Your Future Children.”
“I know it’s controversial to talk about prevention of autism when we don’t actually know what the cause is,” Sears said. “Where I’m coming from is that a lot of similar medical problems seem to occur in kids with autism, and that when we fix those medical problems, the symptoms of the autism tend to get better. One of the main ones is food allergies. Identify food allergies early by taking colicky babies and chronic, loose stools seriously.”