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'Autism Diet' May Not Improve Symptoms

Study Casts Doubt on Effectiveness of Casein-Free and Gluten-Free Diets

Putting the Autism Diet to the Test continued...

After being on the autism diet for at least four weeks, the children were given a ''challenge'' snack once a week with either 20 grams of wheat flour, 20 grams of evaporated milk, both, or neither. The routine continued until each child received each snack three times over 12 weeks.

All the snacks were made to look identical, with similar taste and texture, and no one knew which snack was being given.

Parents, teachers, and researchers observed the children's behavior and symptoms before the challenges and two and 24 hours after. ''We looked at various parameters of behavior before and after the challenges," Hyman says.

Included were measures of improvements in sleep problems, common in children with ASD, improvement in bowel problems, also common, as well as improvement in socializing and language.

''There was no difference with the challenge compared to the placebo," Hyman says

Anecdotal reports from parents, especially in children with autism and significant GI symptoms, may be fueling interest in the diet, Hyman says.

Despite the results, nutritional interventions and effects on autism warrant more study, Hyman says.

One of her co-researchers, Patricia Stewart, PhD, RD, a senior instructor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, agrees. ''I think we need bigger studies that are more inclusive," she says, perhaps including children with GI issues. ''There could be subpopulations that benefit."

Second Opinion

One plus of the study is that the scientific community is focusing on whether the diet plan, long popular with parents, works, says David Mandell, ScD, associate director of the Center for Autism Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia.

"Parents have been trying what we call complementary and alternative treatment for a long time, and I think the scientific community has tended to ignore them," say Mandell, who reviewed the study results for WebMD.

Critics might point out that an 18-week study is not long enough to produce real change, he says. "Some parents would say six months to a year [is needed to notice changes]."

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