Many parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) report that behavior improves when their children eat a diet free of the proteins gluten and casein. Gluten is found primarily in wheat, barley and rye; casein, in dairy products. Last year, clinicians within Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) investigated the issue and found insufficient evidence of clear benefit. We called for clinical studies, and these studies are now underway.
While we’re awaiting the results, it’s reasonable to ask what harm could result from trying a casein-gluten-free diet. Certainly, dietary changes can be worth investigating and trying, and many parents report improvements in behavior. However, until more clinical studies are completed and more evidence of safety and benefit is available, parents who place their child on a casein-gluten-free diet need to take extra steps to ensure they do so in a safe and reliable manner.
First, when parents decide to try a casein-gluten-free diet for their child, I strongly urge them to consult with a dietary counselor such as a nutritionist or dietician. Although it’s easy to find casein-gluten-free dietary plans on the Internet, few parents—or physicians—have the experience and knowledge to determine whether a child’s diet is providing all the necessary requirements for normal growth and development. Keep in mind that foods containing gluten and casein are major sources of protein as well as essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D, calcium, and zinc.
I recommend that parents bring the nutritionist or dietician a 3- to 5-day dietary history for their child (writing down what was eaten and how much) and have this reviewed to determine whether there is a real risk for nutritional deficiency. The nutritionist or dietician can then work with the family to add foods or supplements that address potential gaps in nutrition.
After establishing a plan for a safe and complete diet, I encourage parents to set up a reliable way to measure their child’s response to the diet. This should start before the diet is begun, with a list of the specific behaviors that the family would like to see improve. Examples might include angry outbursts, inability to sit quietly during class, problems sleeping at night, or not speaking to others.
Next recruit teachers, therapists, babysitters, and others outside the family to help you objectively monitor these targeted behaviors and verify your perception of changes. If you reach a consensus that improvements are occurring, continuing the diet may be worth the cost and effort.
However, one should still question whether the improvements are due to the removal of all gluten and casein from the diet. The changes might be due to removal of just one of these proteins. For example, some parents report improvement with a casein-free diet, and others report improvements with gluten-free diets.
In fact, the behavioral changes may be due to dietary changes other than the removal of casein or gluten. For example, the improvement might be due to the fact that the new diet replaces processed foods high in sugar and fat with healthier foods such as whole grain rice, fruits, and vegetables.
These alternative explanations are important to consider because a strict casein-gluten free diet requires hard work and can be costly. For example, it may be difficult for your child to eat from the menus in a school cafeteria or restaurant. Birthday parties present another challenge. As a parent, you’ll likely be faced with the task of sending or bringing special meals and treats when your child eats away from home.
Autism Speaks ATN continues to support research and clinical improvement endeavors on nutritional and on gastrointestinal issues associated with autism through the HRSA-funded Autism Intervention Network for Physical Health.
Four years ago, the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) set out to collect information on the medical concerns of children and adolescents with autism across North America—while delivering the best in evidence-based, comprehensive healthcare and support for these patients and their families.
Through the efforts of hundreds of clinicians across what are now 17 sites, the ATN Registry has now surpassed 4,000 enrolled children. The information gathered from these participating families is providing the global healthcare community with priceless information on the medical conditions often associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and the best ways to manage them. In particular, such large numbers allow researchers and physicians to better understand and address the great diversity of medical, behavioral, and other quality of life issues associated with autism.
Enrolling our 4,000th family is an important milestone for Autism Speaks, as we continue to expand and support the ATN and its mission of providing the highest quality of comprehensive care by teams of medical professionals who understand ASDs and excel at conducting evidence-based research.
In 2008 and again this year, the ATN earned additional federal funding to operate as the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P)—funding made possible thanks to the passage and recent renewal of the Combating Autism Act. Under the grant, awarded to the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, the ATN/AIR-P Network continues to develop and conduct research aimed at directly improving the health and well being of children and adolescents with ASDs and other developmental disabilities. Funding is supporting research in areas of highest priority to families and that can have the greatest benefit for children.
As we celebrate the benchmark of the 4,000th enrolled child, we want to again express our deep gratitude for both the commitment of our participant families and the thousands of donors, volunteers, and staff members whose support make this work possible. Thank you for helping us improve the care and respect afforded to all individuals on the autism spectrum.
Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN) has competed successfully for another round of federal funding—$12 million—to continue to serve as the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). Read more in science news at autismspeaks.org…
On the Release of the GI Consensus Statement and Recommendations in Pediatrics: The ATN’s role in Moving from Consensus to Evidence
The release today of the consensus statements and recommendations for the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal (GI) disorders in Pediatrics provides much needed guidance to clinicians and practitioners involved in the care of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the recognition, evaluation, and management of abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea, chronic constipation and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Given the difficulties some children with ASD experience in communicating pain or discomfort, these recommendations mark an important step to understand and characterize the manifestation of gastrointestinal complaints in these children. They also serve to bring order to the diagnostic and treatment procedures for parents and physicians. While the expert recommendations break new ground, we anticipate that they are a prelude towards the development of evidence-based guidelines that will standardize care for all children with ASD.
Several of the authors on these two papers, including myself, are pediatric gastroenterologists as well as active members of the GI Committee of Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN). Through the ATN GI Committee and the federally-sponsored Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P), the ATN is turning consensus-based recommendations into ASD-specific clinical evaluation and treatment algorithms. These will be based on data (where it exists) and guidelines for pediatric GI conditions for neurotypical children that we modify for children with ASD, supplemented by expert opinion that supports the effectiveness of the recommended procedures.
The ATN is working closely with the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality (NICHQ) (
), an organization recognized as expert in pediatric guideline development. Together, we are in progress of piloting of the first developed algorithm which is for the evaluation and treatment of constipation at several ATN member sites. The data we collect from this pilot work and subsequent broad implementation across ATN sites will eventually contribute to the development of evidence-based guidelines. The ATN is a highly unique resource in this effort, in part because of the ATN Registry which collects and analyzes data on over 1700 ATN children with ASD.
The eventual development of ASD-specific evaluation and treatment algorithms for GI disorders and other conditions that trouble children with ASD means that physicians and other care providers who use these algorithms will have greater clarity on the diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of these conditions. For families, these algorithms will provide confidence that a chosen course of action is based on careful testing in clinical practice and greatly increase the likelihood of successful identification and management of their children.
For the time being and until the availability of the ATN evaluation and treatment algorithms, parents are urged to let their children’s doctors know about the release of the important consensus statements and recommendations on-line in Pediatrics so that that they might be applied to their child’s care.
George J. Fuchs, M.D.Dr Fuchs is Professor of Pediatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Medical Director, Gastroenterology, Arkansas Children’s Hospital. He is a member of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, (NASPGHAN), and is the Chair of the Gastroenterology Committee of the Autism Treatment Network.