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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Gluten-Free/Casein-Free Diets for Autism

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that affect children by disrupting their ability to communicate and interact socially. To reduce a child's symptoms of autism, parents often try alternative treatments such as specialized diets. Lately, the gluten-free/casein-free diet has grown in popularity. Some parents report improvements in autism symptoms with this dietary regimen.

Little research has been done, though, on the gluten-free/casein-free diet for autism. Consequently, many parents wonder whether this diet really does, in fact, make a difference in the symptoms of children with autism. Some also believe that children with autism restrict their own intake, because they prefer bland food like white bread. Thus the question becomes “Chicken or egg.” Is the gluten causing the autism, or, more likely, is the autism limiting the child’s variety of food intake?

What is a gluten-free/casein-free diet for autism?

A gluten-free/casein-free diet is also known as the GFCF diet. It is one of several alternative treatments for children with autism. When following this strict elimination diet, all foods containing gluten ( found in wheat, barley and rye) and casein ( found in milk and dairy products) are removed from the child's daily food intake. 

Some parents of children with autism believe their children are allergic or sensitive to the components found in these foods. Some seek allergy testing for confirmation. Yet, even when no allergy is confirmed, many parents of autistic children still choose to offer the GFCF diet. Among the benefits they report are changes in speech and behavior.

How does a gluten-free/casein-free diet for autism work?

The benefit of a gluten-free/casein-free diet is based on the theory that children with autism may have an allergy or high sensitivity to  foods containing gluten or casein.  Children with autism, according to the theory, process peptides and proteins in foods containing gluten and casein differently than other people do. Hypothetically, this difference in processing may exacerbate autistic symptoms. Some believe that the brain treats these proteins like false opiate-like chemicals. The reaction to these chemicals, they say, leads a child to act in a certain way. The idea behind the use of the diet is to reduce symptoms and improve social and cognitive behaviors and speech.

There may be some scientific merit to the reasoning behind a gluten-free/casein-free diet. Researchers have found abnormal levels of peptides in bodily fluids of some people who have symptoms of autism. Still, the effectiveness of a GFCF diet for autism has not been supported by medical research; in fact, a review of recent and past studies concluded there is a lack of scientific evidence to say whether this diet can be helpful or not.

Unfortunately, eliminating all sources of gluten and casein is so difficult that conducting randomized clinical trials in children may prove to be very difficult.

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