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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...

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]."

"This [study] is a very specific type of study, a challenge,'' he says. "That's very different than randomizing them to a gluten-free, casein-free diet compared to a regular diet." Such a comparison study would help, he says.

Mandell still expects parents to try the autism diet, despite the results saying it's ineffective.

If they do, he has this advice. "Approach it with even more skepticism than they would have before." Deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D can occur with the diet.

Mandell says parents should decide what specific symptoms or behavior  they are trying to change with the diet and develop a way to assess that change once the diet is introduced.

That may reduce the subjective assessment that's a natural reaction to many interventions for autism, he says. "We all want to believe our kids are getting better based on what we do."

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