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The autism/diet connection

Last week the British medical journal The Lancet formally, and finally, retracted a study it had published in 1998 that loosely linked the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine to the development of autism.

The science behind that study was found to be shoddy, and the researcher has been accused of ethical breaches. Moreover, it planted a fear of vaccination in parents in both Great Britain and the United States. That fear is unlikely to be erased by the retraction of the study.

As I write in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, the study also planted the notion that autism may be linked to gastrointestinal disorders. It promoted a theory that kids with autism may have what's known as "leaky gut," a condition that allows food proteins that normally are too big to pass through the intestinal wall to enter the bloodstream and eventually the brain.

That notion has encouraged many parents of autistic children to believe their children's condition may be managed, treated or even cured through diet. Specifically, many believe that a gluten-free, casein-free diet protects autistic children against food proteins (gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, and casein, found in dairy products) that may trigger symptoms or worsen the severity of their autism.

This approach has famously been adopted by actor Jenny McCarthy, who claims a special diet has virtually reversed her son's autism.

The problem is, reputable, solid science hasn't established a connection between diet and autism. In January, the journal Pediatrics published a paper noting just that -- but also allows that many kids with autism, just like those without, may have gastrointestinal disorders that can be diagnosed and treated. It is possible that attending to those underlying ills could make a child feel much better, so much so that his or her autism might appear to have improved.

Parents of children with autism are understandably eager to do whatever they can to help their kids lead happy, healthy lives. If adjusting a child's diet has the effect of achieving that end, that's wonderful.

But those who put all their eggs in the diet basket may risk distracting themselves from the pursuit of autism's true cause.

I'd like to hear from parents of children with autism. Do you believe diet plays a direct role in your child's condition? Or do you believe that's a red herring?

For more health news, please follow me on Twitter!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 9, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Autism , Chronic Conditions , Family Health , Neurological disorders  
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Why write a reasonable article about the fact that autistic children have no more GI problems than non-autistic children, then end it by asking parents what they "believe" on this subject? Absurd!

Posted by: LouiseC | February 9, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Mums ejected from the GMC Dr Wakefield Witch-hunt Trial Speak out

Truth's coming out as this is now going to high court.

"False Testimony Denies Dr Wakefield a Fair Hearing at MMR GMC Witchhunt"

Thanks to Wakefield being the scapegoat the world is watching now and they won't be able to continue the charade of this atrocity.

Who do you believe people? Those who are taking part in this witch hunt against Wakefield or the Mothers who were thrown out of that kangaroo court in that video?

The fight is on so watch out bad boys because the good guys are taking over.

Posted by: mofmars333 | February 9, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

My son has been on the GFCF diet for over two years. We have seen a normal bowel function (no constant diarreah)and the ability to actually toilet train him (a big deal since he's 9!). In addition, he has not had an ear infection (or actually any others either) in the two plus years we've been following it (had had 5 sets if ear tubes prior). This is amazing since he is also a former 25 week preemie and has a compromised immune system. We have not had to utilize our nebulizer for chronic lung disease either.

His teachers also reported better focus and follwoing directions (we initially didn't tell them he started the diet) for unbiased opinion.

So clearly for some kids it does help their entire system. Your entire immune sustem is driven by the gut. I believe that ASD is an immune disorder, genetic predisposition, but an environmental trigger (which could be toxins, vaccines, etc.) unbiased studeis need done.

Posted by: dpinPA | February 9, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Autism is a DSM diagnosis based only on subject observation of symptoms. The methods commonly used to determine the cause 'Autism' would fail to find the cause of 'Headache'. The cause of headache could be trama, poisoning, toxicity, genetic, viral, bacterial, tumor, etc. Autism is a collection of symptoms of neurological impairment; just as headache is only a symptom of something else.

Using the same study methods that are regularly used on Autism, I could claim that being punched in the head is not proven to cause headaches because it doesn't always cause a headache and it could just be co-incidental that some people get a headache around the time they get struck in the head.

If a child has serious illness apart from Autism - say major digestive problems. Its probably a good idea to treat them, regardless of whether some largely useless person in a labcoat attempting to pass themselves off as a scientist somewhere has claims as to whether or not it causes "Autism".

Posted by: tweldy | February 9, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

The issue with the vaccine-autism controversy has always been that what people chose to believe was never supported by science. Hopefully, now that this issue has been set aside, science can take its rightful place as the basis on which decisions are made, rather than simply succumbing to understandings which might be popular, but have no evidence base. All the money, time and energy spent repeatedly refuting the non-evidence about vaccines could and should have been spent on other research.

To the parent of the ex-25weeker, naturally your child feels better and focuses better if they are no longer having diarrhea. Who wouldn't? This does not mean that the GI issues cause the autism. 25 week gestation infants have very high incidence of all sorts of developmental problems compared to the rest of the population. A vulnerable nervous system meets a profoundly challenging environment and the risk is established- not only for autism but for an array of issues.

In my professional experience the number of parents who stick with GCGF diets is dwarfed by the number who do not.

Posted by: RobyRM | February 9, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

beautiful song on itunes about autism: "All He Has To Say" by aika hirahara.

Posted by: joanie432 | February 9, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

My daughter suffered from non-epileptic seizures for years. Doctors said it was a somatic condition from stress. I stumbled across information linking gluten intolerance to seizures. It has been over 4 months since her last seizure. She is so motivated to stay on this diet in spite of the challenge because she feels so much better. I keep finding more and more information about the link to diet and seizures and other neurological conditions. I wish doctors would be as investigative as mother's are. If there isn't even a chance a diet change could help - why not try. The science will follow.

Posted by: momto32 | February 9, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I have always viewed the Autism/diet connection with the same degree of belief as the Autism/vaccines connection- that there is none. I have three children with high functioning Autism as well as a nephew with high functioning Autism. I believe there is a strong genetic connection and although there may be an environmental or diet element, it would be nearly impossible to prove since how the child responds to the intervention given is different with each child.

While we may never know the why, I can certainly testify to the success of early Autism intervention and therapies. And as a Registered Dietitian, I will be interested to see if anything amounts to the "diet/Autism" connection. So far, I am not convinced the trauma of significant diet changes for families already dealing with such difficult issues is really worth it. I look forward to any significant studies that go beyond "personal testimonies".

Posted by: Rintx | February 9, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Anyone serious about preventing birth defects, perhaps including autism, must read Dr. John Cannell's Vitamin D Theory of Autism. The new research of the last 2 years indicates vitamin D deficiency is at the root of many birth issues including premature birth and underweight babies. It is critical that pregnant mothers supplement at least 6000 i.u. of vitamin D3 daily to avoid the unnecessary risks associated with vitamin D deficiency. Anyone not familiar with the specifics needs to investigate vitamin D and start taking it seriously. NOTHING is more important than maintaining at least 50 ng/ml in the blood - year round. Diet can not provide nearly enough D3 to maintain health. Get some sun in midday when the season's right (May-September above Georgia) and supplement when necessary. One can do no harm by maintaining healthy, natural levels of D3(at least 50 ng/ml) and can benefit in a host of ways by being D3 replete.

Posted by: dokadow | February 9, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Diet is very important for wellness and health for every individual, but especially for individuals with autism. You have heard of cholesterol affecting heart health? You understand that a diabetic needs to moderate their sugar intake to maintain a balnced blood sugar level, right? This is really no different. There is plenty of scientific research that tells us that our kids have more GI problems than typical children and that they are less likely to get appropriate medical care for their problems. Autism doesn't just "appear to have improved" when proper medical treatment for GI issues occurs. Our kids bodies heal and the behaviors that constitute the autism diagnosis begin to fade away. If you're not really sure about the connection between behavior and the GI tract, go have a few shots of whiskey and see how your body responds to your neurologial system (i.e. your brain). I'm sure you are aware that your state has clear laws against drinking alcohol and driving because of the effect what you drink has on motor planning and judgment, so please be sure to have designated driver along for the experiment I've proposed.

Diet is the foundation of healing for our kids. We do not put all of our eggs in that basket, however. Most parents who are pursuing biomedical interventions for autism are highly educated and rational individuals. Diet is the starting place, but we use blood, stool and urine lab tests to determine nutritional deficiencies, bacterial/viral/fungal/parasitic infections, the need for repairing the detox pathways and immune system so that appropriate medical treatment can be given. Along with this wholistic medical approach we provide our children with the most intensive educational programing available including behavioral therapy, speech and occupational therapies.

You may want to make it sound very simple--that the crazy parents think that diet can miraculously cure autism or not. But nothing about autism is simple. Diet is very important for healing. But it is only one of the many, many interventions we have used to help our son recover from autism.

I've answered your question about what I think about diet, and now I have a question for you. You say that those of us who put our eggs in the diet basket risk distracting ourselves from the pursuit of autism's true cause. What do you think is "autism's true cause"? Forgive me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be implying that we should be waiting for some magical genetic discovery. Genetic reseach isn't going to stop our children's diarreah.

Posted by: hollyriley | February 9, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

I recieved this text from this newspaper:Fighting autism with food

With a long-standing study linking the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism recently discredited by the journal that published it, the potential effects of diet on the disorder may now get more attention.
The Checkup: Is there a connection between diet and autism?

I think the way you formulate the above text, is in a way misleading and may be motivated in order to take attention. It would be more simple to had made another headline: There isnot a connection between diet and autism.

Posted by: janroseboom | February 10, 2010 4:23 AM | Report abuse

I absolutely know that changing my boys diet not only improved their gastrointestinal health but improved their brain function. We started the GFCF diet 7 years ago. At one point they couldn't tolerate many foods, including corn, potato, soy, bananas, apples in addition to the gluten and soy. After 6 years of such restrictions thing were slowly added back in. Today, they remain gluten free. They are both in Catholic school now. Had I waited for some "scientific proof" I would have two boys in special ed, waiting for gov't handouts. We chose the option that was a lot of work and money. It has been worth every penny and experiment in the kitchen.

Posted by: theang | February 10, 2010 5:42 AM | Report abuse

In our experience, the gluten free casein free diet helped my son who has autism to feel better. He had chronic explosive diarrhea for almost a year. When having the diarrhea, he had difficulty just being awake. He was constantly having tantrums and upset. We had trouble taking him places or getting through the night without having to change him, his pajamas, and sheets.

We began the gluten free casein free diet after getting a clean bill of health from our doctor. After a month on the diet, his speech pathologist asked me what was different about him. He was able to attend, smile, and participate in speech therapy. Prior to the diet, he was shrieking and screaming for the full 50 minutes.

For some children like my son, the diet allows him to feel better and be more available in life and therapies. Three years into the diet, it has become second nature and my son's diet is nutritious and better balanced. With the increase in celiac, there are so many more products and restaurants able to accommodate the special diets.

My advice for parents is to read and determine for yourself if you would like to try the diet and if you think it beneficial for your child and family.

Posted by: alisonmike | February 11, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

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