Does Diet Help with Autism?

Parents of children diagnosed with autism -- or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) -- often deal with many kinds of food-related challenges. These can include a number of things, like allergies. Or, maybe the child has a hard time swallowing. She may be a picky eater or hate certain foods and refuse to eat any of them. She might also have problems digesting what she eats.

But can what your child eats -- or doesn’t eat -- improve her symptoms? In this article, we take a look at the research.

Special Diets

There’s no hard evidence that special diets help children with ASD. Autism is a complex brain disorder. While it may seem that cutting out certain foods could relieve your child’s symptoms, it might actually cause more harm.

For example, children with autism often have thinner bones. Dairy products contain nutrients that can help to make them stronger. There have been studies on a protein in milk products called casein. They found that many children performed the same whether they or not they ate foods that contained this protein. Their autism symptoms didn’t change in any remarkable way.

Ask the Experts

Your child’s diet needs to support her specific nutritional needs and ASD symptoms. The best approach is to work with your doctor and a nutrition specialist -- like a registered dietician. They’ll help you design a meal plan tailored for your child.

Some children with autism have digestive problems like constipation, belly pain, or nausea and vomiting. Your doctor can suggest a diet that won’t make them worse.

And remember, nutritional needs change over time. Your child’s dietician will help you make sure the foods she eats are still meeting her needs as she gets older.

Can Supplements Help?

Many studies show they can boost nutrition and calm some symptoms of ASD. You might want to ask your doctor about the following:

Fatty acids. Essential fatty acids -- or EFAs -- help the brain and immune system develop. Omega-3 and omega-6 are excellent sources. Your body doesn’t make them, so you’ll have to get them either from food you eat, or from supplements.

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Omega-3 can be found in seafood like salmon, albacore tuna, and shellfish. Omega-6 is in meat, eggs, and dairy, and vegetable oils.

Probiotics. The body needs good bacteria to help with digestion. In fact, they live in and protect the digestive tract. Probiotic supplements contain these healthy germs. They also help control swelling and inflammation, both of which are closely linked to autism.

Vitamins and minerals. It’s common for autistic children to not get enough of these. Much of the time, they stem from very strict eating habits. Vitamin and mineral supplements can help balance your child’s system and make sure she’s getting the nutrients her body needs.

Beyond Diet

A healthy diet tailored to your child is essential. But it’s only one important piece of the puzzle. Your child’s doctor will help you balance her personal nutrition with medical and psychological treatments.

An appropriate diet can overlap to ease autism symptoms and increase the success of other treatments.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on November 09, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Case Reports in Psychiatry: “Targeted Nutritional and Behavioral Feeding Intervention for a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: “ASD: Nutritional Therapy.”

Mayo Clinic: “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders: “The Gluten-Free/Casein-Free Diet: A Double-Blind Challenge Trial in Children with Autism.”

Treat Autism & ADHD: “Gut and Probiotics.”

PubMed: “How nutritional status, diet and dietary supplements can affect autism.”

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