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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Tips for Parenting a Child With Autism

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7. Learn More About Diet Changes

Diet changes are based on the idea that food allergies cause symptoms of autism, and an insufficiency of a specific vitamin or mineral may cause some autistic symptoms. If you decide to try a special diet for a given period of time, be sure you talk to your pediatrician and a registered dietitian. The child's nutritional status must be assessed and carefully measured. 

One diet that some parents have found helpful is a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet. Gluten is a casein-like substance found in wheat, oats, rye, and barley. Casein is the principal protein in dairy products such as milk. There is no scientific evidence to support the use of this diet in individuals with autism, so it's important to ask for guidance from your child's doctor or nutritionist to ensure your child is getting adequate nutritional value from his or her diet.

The theory of the GFCF diet is that in autistic children these proteins result in an overproduction of opiates in the brain, contributing to social awkwardness and thwarting brain maturation. Since gluten and milk are found in many of the foods we eat, following a gluten-free, casein-free diet is extremely difficult.

Parents of a child with autism who also has food allergies or intolerance may be more likely to attempt the restrictive GFCF diet. However, food sensitivities are not proven to be more common in children with autism than in normally developing children. Still, some parents claim benefit from restrictive diets.

One supplement some parents feel is helpful for a child with autism is vitamin B-6, which is taken with a magnesium supplement. The results of research studies are mixed on vitamin B-6 and magnesium supplementation. While some children respond positively, others respond negatively or not at all. You need to be careful with "mega vitamins." It's possible to overdose on magnesium when taking supplements, and that can cause other neurological problems.

8. Use Caution With Unproven Therapies for Autism

The safety and effectiveness of some therapies used to treat autism are not known. Many unproven treatments circulate through web sites, word of mouth, or the media. Most have not been subjected to thorough, sound research and are considered nonstandard and controversial. Even if someone else has found tremendous success with an "unproven" therapy, it's important to be cautious about a treatment for autism if:

  • The autism treatment is based upon oversimplified scientific theories.
  • It benefits more than one condition.
  • It provides dramatic and "miraculous" results.
  • The only available evidence is based upon a few stories (anecdotal evidence), testimonials, and little or no scientific research.
  • Specific treatment goals or target behaviors are not identified.
  • Controlled, scientific research is said not to be needed because there are no risks or side effects.

Examples of nonstandard, unproven therapies for autism that are receiving attention include:  

  • Immune globulin therapy. An intravenous (IV) injection of immune globulin is based on the assumption that autism is caused by an autoimmune abnormality.
  • Secretin. This treatment uses an IV injection of secretin (a hormone that stimulates the pancreas and liver) to manage autistic behavior. Anecdotal reports have shown improvement in autism symptoms, including sleep patterns, eye contact, language skills, and alertness. Several clinical trials conducted in the last few years have found no significant improvements in symptoms between children with autism who received secretin and those who received a placebo.
  • Chelationtherapy. Mercury exposure as a cause of autism is the basis for this therapy, which uses medications to help the body eliminate the toxins. Children with autism often have a craving for nonfood items or unusual diets that may result in mercury exposure; therefore, mercury exposure may be more of an effect of autism than a cause. Chelation therapy has caused several deaths in the U.S.
  • Auditory integration training (AIT). Based upon a theory that autism is caused by hearing problems that result in distorted sounds or oversensitivity to noises, this treatment delivers music through special devices.
  • Facilitated communication. This method uses a keyboard to assist communication. It has not been found to be helpful and in some cases has been harmful.
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