Is There a Link Between Diet and Autism?

Experts discuss efficacy of eating gluten-, casein-free food as a way to reduce behavioral problems

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

For years, parents of children on the autism spectrum have claimed that adjusting their child’s diet has helped reduce effects of autism.

Most do not claim to “cure” autism, a developmental disorder marked by a reduced capacity to communicate, interact and interpret sensory input.

But these parents give hope to parents of newly diagnosed children who want to reduce behavioral problems and improve their children’s chances of leading a more typical life.

Courtney Liggett, principal of the East Henrietta campus of the Mary Cariola Center, is a board-certified and licensed behavior analyst. While she has read accounts of parents adopting a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet for their child and experiencing big improvements, she remains skeptical.

“In my experience at Mary Cariola Center and with my relatives on the spectrum, I haven’t seen that happen,” she said. “Unless that child has some other digestive issue already and we’re changing the diet to address that issue, we won’t see a change in behavior or severity of autism.”

Gluten is inherent to wheat, barley and rye; casein is part of milk and other dairy products. Little research supports eliminating these foods can improve the behavior of children on the autism spectrum.

Liggett theorized that perhaps if a child is lactose intolerance or gluten sensitive but unable to communicate gastrointestinal distress, removing the offending foods from the diet will by extension improve behavior because the child will feel better.

Liggett warned about arbitrarily changing the diet.

“We have many students with autism who only eat certain brands or categories of foods like only crunchy or only soft foods,” she said. “Children with autism with limited food intake can be malnourished, so it’s important to talk with the pediatrician about their nutrition. Do they need supplements? Do they have too many carbs?”

Further limiting the diet may reduce their intake of nutrients.

Kelly Herron is a board-certified OB-GYN and board-certified internal medical physician certified in integrative and functional medicine. She operates Hygeia Life in Rochester.

“The gut is our ‘second brain,’” she said. “Many substances from the gut affect the brain and secondarily mood.”

She believes that supporting good gut health can improve overall health. This starts with consuming enough fiber, which Herron believes is one of the least represented foods in the American diet.

Eating more servings of beans, flax, whole fruits and vegetables and whole grain foods are the fiber-filled foods that feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Foods with naturally occurring beneficial bacteria include fermented foods.

“If you look at any ancient culture, they all ate fermented foods,” Herron said.

Fermented foods include kimchee, plain yogurt (not the kind with added sugar), kefir and sauerkraut.

Herron also encourages consumption of diverse produce, herbs and spice as they provide a variety of vitamins and minerals and anti-inflammatory properties.

“We used to eat whatever was in season, which promoted variety,” Herron said.