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How helpful is the casein-gluten-free diet?

November 11, 2011 58 comments

 This week’s answer comes from pediatric gastroenterologist, Kent Williams, MD, of Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio—one of 17 sites in Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network.

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.

Have a question? Please email us at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org.  Read more news and perspective on the Autism Speaks science page.


New Insight into Autism and Intestinal Problems

September 19, 2011 6 comments

As parents have long reported, many children with autism experience severe gastrointestinal (GI) problems, and the associated discomfort can worsen behavior. Now research supported by Autism Speaks is lending new insight into how the GI activity of children with autism may differ from that of other children in key ways. Read more in the science news section at autismspeaks.org.

New Trailblazer awardee answers questions about GI and autism

April 14, 2011 50 comments

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems affect many children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Access to rigorously studied treatments for medical conditions such as GI is a major unmet need for families. The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) provides experts in the care and management of GI problems for these children and engages in clinical research. However, the underlying nature of GI dysfunction in ASD and its relationship to etiology and ASD symptoms are still poorly understood. This information is critical to developing better and more targeted treatments, so both clinical and basic research in this area is needed.

Given the importance this issue, Autism Speaks has recently announced a major Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award for research into the biological mechanisms of GI disorders in ASD. (Read a press release about the award). The new study brings together innovative and cutting-edge pilot projects that form a new synergistic and coordinated effort. The connections between irregular bowel movements, gut barrier function, gut bacteria, immune function, and abnormal behavior have as yet not been investigated in ASD. This Trailblazer Study will examine these potential links.

We were privileged to have a chat with one of the key investigators on the study, Dr. Alessio Fasano, pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMDSOM). He is professor of Pediatrics at UMDSOM and Director of the Center for Celiac Research and for the Mucosal Biology Research Center.

Autism Speaks: How many children with ASD are affected by GI disorders, and what are the most common problems they suffer from?

Dr. Fasano: The impact of GI problems in children with ASD is difficult to quantify since some of the symptoms, like stomachache or abdominal discomfort, cannot be communicated by nonverbal or minimally verbal children. For this reason, the percentage of ASD children suffering from GI symptoms reported in the literature varies from 9% to 90%. The most common GI symptoms include chronic constipation, stomachaches with or without diarrhea, and underwear soiling. Disturbed sleep patterns and nighttime waking also have been described as possibly secondary symptoms to gastroesophageal reflux (GERD).

Autism Speaks: Why is it important to study GI disorders specifically in children with ASD? Don’t we already know how to treat GI disorders in children?

Dr. Fasano: ASD is comprised of a mixed bag of different cases that share the behavioral description typical of ASD. In other words, ASD might be the “final destination,” but the route to get there can vary from individual to individual. Some children may reach their ASD destination through the “GI route,” meaning that it is possible that their GI disorders can lead to ASD in genetically susceptible individuals. By studying GI disorders specifically in children with ASD, we are not simply trying to develop methods for a better management of GI symptoms. Rather, we have a much more ambitious goal: We are trying to understand the underlying physiology of ASD; we are trying to “walk the same route” that these children took to arrive at their ASD “final destination.” By doing so, we hope to help them turn around and walk back from that ASD destination.

Autism Speaks: Please describe the study briefly in your own words.

Dr. Fasano: We believe that a few things are key ingredients of the ASD recipe: 1) Genetic predisposition (as suggested by twin studies); 2) Environmental triggers (nutrients, metals, additives, oxidants, to name just a few); and 3) An impaired gut barrier (leaky gut). Our studies will attempt to connect the dots among these three elements by 1) establishing whether the composition of intestinal bacteria in children with irregular bowel movements is different in ASD and non-ASD children and 2) whether this difference activates specific metabolic pathways leading to an immune response causing inflammation and, consequently, behavioral changes in genetically susceptible individuals. We will integrate our clinical studies in ASD children with a mouse model of autism, not only to validate our clinical findings but also to explore the possibility of specific interventions to modify the gut bacteria in order to alleviate the ASD-related behavior.

Autism Speaks: If our ultimate goal is to find appropriate treatments for GI disorders in children with ASD, why spend so much effort on studying the biology of the GI dysfunction?

Dr. Fasano: It is my humble opinion that a better understanding of the biology of GI dysfunctions that afflict many ASD children is the key to unbundling the  complicated path that brought them to ASD. By answering some of these fundamental questions, we can follow the “bread crumbs” that they  left behind during the journey toward their ASD final destination.

Autism Speaks: What are the top three things that we will be able to learn from the study?

Dr. Fasano: We will be able to answer the following three fundamental questions:

  1. Is there a specific composition of “bad bacteria” that can lead to a leaky gut and inflammation, and consequently, to ASD in genetically predisposed children?
  2. If this is the case, do these bad bacteria activate specific metabolic pathways so that we can search for metabolites that can be used as biomarkers (i.e., red flags) indicating that they embarked upon a journey that led to ASD?
  3. Can we manipulate the bacterial composition in the gut of children with GI disorders in order to correct the leaky gut and inflammation (by monitoring the disappearance of the metabolic biomarkers) and consequently, improve their behavior?

Autism Speaks: What are some signs that families and their doctors can look for if they think a child has a GI problem?

Dr. Fasano: Besides the obvious signs and symptoms (diarrhea, constipation, and underwear soiling), specific behaviors may point toward GI problems, including vocal behaviors (screaming, frequent clearing of throat, tics, swallowing, sighing, whining, moaning, etc.), motor behaviors (unusual posture, pressure on the belly, wincing, constant eating, gritting teeth, etc.), and/or changes in the overall state (sleep disturbances, non-compliance with requests that typically elicit proper response, increased irritability, etc.).

Autism Speaks: What can families do now if they think their child has a GI problem?

Dr. Fasano: If GI problems are suspected, families should be referred to a pediatric GI specialist familiar with ASD-related GI disorders. One thing to avoid is undertaking any conventional or unconventional remedy to solve their child’s GI issues without medical advice. Any intervention will complicate the interpretation of the underlying GI problems and, therefore, complicate the proper management needed to alleviate the child’s discomfort.

5|25: Celebrating Five Years of Autism Science Day 23: Gastroenterology consensus recommendations provide recognition of the need for specialized approaches to GI problems in children with autism

February 23, 2010 1 comment

In honor of the anniversary of Autism Speaks’ founding on Feb 25, for the next 25 days we will be sharing stories about the many significant scientific advances that have occurred during our first five years together. Our 23rd item, Gastroenterology consensus recommendations provide recognition of the need for specialized approaches to GI problems in children with autism, is adapted from a 2009 press release. 

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are a commonly expressed concern of parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but families have often found it difficult to find appropriate care for these issues. In December 2009, a consensus statement and recommendations for the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of gastrointestinal disorders in children with ASD were published in Pediatrics. These recommendations are an important step in advancing physician awareness of the unique challenges in the medical management of children with autism and will be a prelude towards the development of evidence-based guidelines that will standardize care for all children with ASD. The reports highlighted the crucial need for information to guide care, and emphasized the critical importance of fostering more research in this area, including genetic research, to support the development of these guidelines.

“The Pediatrics paper represents long-sought recognition by the mainstream medical community that treatment of GI problems in children with autism requires specific and specialized approaches,” reacted Dr. Dawson. “Autism Speaks has been actively engaged in the study of GI problems associated with children with autism, working toward enhanced medical community awareness for over five years through its research agenda and the Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN). Dan Coury, M.D., ATN medical director, commented, “We are delighted to see the publication of important information that can support clinicians and caregivers in providing better care for children with autism, particularly with GI concerns, as parents unfortunately very often find it difficult to identify physicians who have an understanding of these issues and are able to provide appropriate medical care for their children. GI and pediatric specialists from six of the ATN sites participated in the forum and in the development of these recommendations, which shows the power of interaction among the communities and individuals dedicated to this problem. Autism Speaks is already engaged in the crucial next step which is to move beyond these consensus-based recommendations to develop evidence-based clinical guidelines.” In addition to development of evidence-based clinical guidelines for GI issues, the ATN is also currently working on evidence based clinical guidelines for medical management of sleep, and neurologic disorders associated with autism. “Delivery of evidence-based clinical guidelines will serve as excellent opportunities for future training and education of physicians,” added Dr. Dawson.

The consensus statement highlights several important themes, the first emphasizing that GI problems are a genuine concern in the ASD population and that these disorders exacerbate or contribute to problem behaviors. The need for awareness of how GI problems manifest in children with autism and the potential for accompanying nutritional complications and impaired quality of life were also emphasized.

In the second paper, the authors make consensus recommendations providing guidance on how current general pediatric standards of care that can and should be applied for children with ASD. George Fuchs, M.D., a co-author on the two papers and chair of the ATN GI Committee remarked, “The recommendations provide important guidance for the clinician to adapt the current practices of care (for abdominal pain, chronic constipation and gastroesophageal reflux) for the child with autism. The recommendations from the Autism Forum meeting complement the ATN’s on-going work to develop evidence-based, ASD-specific guidelines. The ATN is currently piloting newly created guidelines and monitoring their effectiveness. We anticipate this data will contribute to an evidence-based foundation to support best practices for GI problems in ASD.”

Autism Speaks is committed to the sustained support of efforts that address co-morbid medical conditions in the ASD population. In recognizing that there’s not enough evidence in any GI area and more research is needed, the Pediatric papers reaffirm the importance of the recent November 2009, Autism Speaks sponsored symposium and workshop on Gastrointestinal Disorders in Autism Spectrum Disorders. The symposium and workshop represented an important partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) – the largest professional society for GI and nutritional specialists, and a professional authority for the development and implementation of pediatric GI guidelines. The symposium raised awareness and provided the latest scientific information to an audience of 168 researchers, clinicians, and pediatric GI and nutrition specialists, most of whom had limited expertise in autism. The symposium was followed by a workshop that brought together a diverse group of experts in GI, nutrition, pediatrics, pain, ASD, and biological research. Recommendations were developed for an expanded and targeted research agenda for the field that will address current gaps in the knowledge base and aim to advance evaluation and treatment of ASD-GI disorders. Proceedings from the meeting are scheduled to be published in 2010. A unique and important element in both the Symposium and Workshop was the inclusion of parents of children with ASD.

Did you know?:  Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN) is developing  evidence-based guidelines that will provide specific guidance to physicians on how to address a number of medical issues of concern for children with ASD.  The ATN is currently piloting a GI guideline algorithm (decision flow charts) for the assessment and treatment of constipation, and a sleep guideline algorithm for insomnia. The ATN is also working on guidelines in the areas of psychopharmacology and neurology. For more information on ATN guideline activities, please see www.autismspeaks.org/airp. 

On the Release of the GI Consensus Statement and Recommendations in Pediatrics: The ATN’s role in Moving from Consensus to Evidence

January 6, 2010 Leave a comment

By George J. Fuchs, M.D.

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) (http://www.nichq.org/), 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.

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