Gluten free diets, casein free diets, elimination diets, supplements, or any combination thereof. Are they any good for people on the autism spectrum? Research still says, no doesn’t really look like it.
Over a decade ago when my children were first diagnosed with autism gluten free and casein free diets were the thing to do to treat autism. I did some digging to find the scientific basis for the belief in this special diet. What I found were studies with small sample sizes, no control groups or poorly matched control groups, no blinded or doubled trials (researchers and participants often knew what they were getting), subjective measurements of outcomes, and no clear mechanism for how the diet was supposed to work or what is was supposed to improve.
I tried a gluten free diet anyway because, hey it was only food. After a year my children were still their autistic selves. I left behind the expensive food and dubious claims about special diets.
Fast forward to today and there have been some high-quality studies done on not only gluten free and casein diets but also the various restriction/elimination diets that parents try as well as the supplements they are often encouraged to use as treatment for their children’s autism. The results are still underwhelming.
Systematic reviews (researchers read lots of papers on a topic to find commonalities, differences, and trends that may otherwise be missed) of various dietary intervention studies indicate little to no benefit from them. They further indicate that it remains unclear what aspects of autism dietary intervention is supposed to improve.
Attention has shifted to how diet can impact epigenetics, the way an individual’s DNA responds to their environment. That research is still based on the premise that dietary interventions must have some impact on autism. Research so far doesn’t support that assumption.
Some researchers have suggested that what are considered positive outcomes of dietary interventions may in fact result from the increased parent/caregiver involvement in a child’s life necessary to maintain dietary interventions. Getting to know your child, monitoring their behavior, and being responsive to their needs is on balance good for the parent and the child.
I find it telling that the research and the push for dietary interventions is focused on young children. None of the papers I read for background research, including the systematic reviews which account for dozens of papers each, mentioned young adults or mature adults with autism. There is a prevailing attitude in many circles that interventions related to autism are only effective when the autistic individual is young. The younger the better.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what, if anything, dietary interventions did for autistic people when they have the freedom to choose them form themselves? Do parents/caregivers maintain dietary interventions into the teen and young adult years? Do adult autistics who received dietary interventions as children continue with them in adulthood? These are the kinds of questions you can ask when you look at the full lifespan of autistic people.
Essential point, save the money you might spend on pricey foods and special supplements for something fun that you child likes. Give them a great memory from their childhood. Save it for college or trade school. Help them furnish their first apartment with the money you save. Or treat the family to some ice cream.