Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common among those with autism, and in many cases, they relate to overly restricted eating habits. This is understandable as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are commonly associated with gastrointestinal problems and sensory issues with food textures and smells. It is also possible that the underlying biology of autism may cause deficiencies in the digestion of certain foods, which could affect vitamin intake. For example, a recent study documented that some children with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances have impaired carbohydrate digestion.
Normal growth and good health depend on the body absorbing and metabolizing the vitamins and minerals that are part of a well-rounded diet. In addition, studies have identified several examples of nutrient deficiencies affecting thinking and behavior – for example, the ability to focus or stay alert in school. Also, nutrient deficiencies such as those involving omega 3 fatty acids may worsen behavioral symptoms such as irritability and hyperactivity. As such, it’s entirely possible that taking supplements may improve such symptoms in some individuals with ASD – especially if the individual has clinical or laboratory evidence of low levels of crucial vitamins, minerals or other nutrients.
In recent years, researchers have looked deeper into how well particular vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements lessen the severity or intensity of core autism symptoms – namely communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive behavior. The results of these clinical studies have been mixed.
One recent large study examined the effect of an over-the-counter supplement called Syndion on 141 children and adults with autism, as compared to the effects of a placebo pill. The researchers reported that the product effectively raised levels of vitamins and minerals in the blood. They also showed that it produced no significant side effects during the 12-week study. The study did not demonstrate meaningful improvements in autism symptoms according to three out of the four assessment tools used. It did, however, show modest but statistically significant improvements on a fourth measure (the Parental Global Impressions-Revised questionnaire) in terms of hyperactivity, tantrums and receptive language.
When interpreting the meaningfulness of these results, readers may take note that the two lead authors were also the developers of the commercial product being tested.
Despite the limitations of this study, it raises important questions as to whether vitamins may be helpful in addressing the core symptoms of autism. It is important to continue supporting research that will provide parents and individuals with clear answers about the value of vitamins, minerals and other nutritional supplements in ASD. Autism Speaks is currently funding several projects to this end, including a new study investigating the possible role of carnitine deficiency in some individuals with ASD. (Carnitine is a nutrient used by cells to process fats and produce energy. It is abundant in red meat and dairy products, but some individuals appear to have difficulties absorbing and/or metabolizing it.)
If you are worried that you or your child may have a nutritional deficiency, supplements may be a good option to consider. It is important that you consult with your doctor about brands and dosages. Supplements vary in quality and potency, and some may have harmfully excessive levels of certain vitamins, minerals or other ingredients.
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.
It can be a challenge for parents to make sure your child with autism is getting the right nutrition and diet while at school. How do parents make sure their child’s is continuing the eating habits and they get the nutrition they need?
Are you looking for more tips? Check out our Community Connections!
Family Services offers a School Community Tool Kit that assists members of the school community in understanding and supporting students with autism. You can download it for free!
Welcome to this installment of ‘Topic of the Week.’ These topics stem from submissions from our community. If there is anything in particular that you would like to see featured, please contact us!
Have you explored or tried any dietary and/or nutritional interventions that might with autism symptoms?
Removal of gluten (a protein found in barley, rye, oats, and wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy products), in what is known as a Gluten Free, Casein Free diet, or GFCF is popular. Have you had any success with this type of diet?
Are you or your child a picky eater? How do you handle this?
*Consultation with a dietitian or physician should be considered and can be helpful to families in the determination of healthy application of a GFCF diet.
For more information about diet and other autism treatments, visit here.
Are you aware of any research being done on diet and its affect on children w/ autism? If so, what has been learned?
“Got Questions?” is a new weekly feature on our blog to address the desire for scientific understanding in our community. We received over 3000 responses when we asked what science questions were on your mind. We answered a few here and the Autism Speaks Science staff will address the other themes we received in this weekly post.
To date, there have only been a few published rigorous clinical trials examining the efficacy of dietary treatment (specifically, the gluten-free, casein-free diet) for improving symptoms of ASD. These have been negative or inconclusive, but were based on very small samples. More recently, Dr. Susan Hyman at the University of Rochester reported the results of a double-blind, randomized trial in which children who were on the diet were challenged with foods containing casein and gluten. Dr. Hyman examined factors such as attention, sleep and the stool of 22 children with ASD both challenged and unchallenged and found no benefit from the diet. Dr. Hyman stressed that her findings don’t rule out the possibility that there may be subgroups of children who benefit. Autism is a very heterogeneous condition. More research is needed.