One of the many proposed treatments for autism and other developmental disorders are certain kinds of diets. These diets are sometimes called elimination diets because they try to eliminate or minimize some ingredients that are thought to contribute to or cause autism.
One such diet is based on the hypothesis that gluten and casein, when broken down, release molecules that make autism worse. Casein is found in dairy products like cheese and milk, while gluten is found in wheat and other grains. The gluten and casein-free diet has become quite popular in the autism community and there are many parents who testify to its potency; however, research supporting these claims cannot be used to guide treatment, because their methods are questioned by the scientific community.
According to the gluten and casein theory, a child with autism or developmental disorder cannot properly digest gluten and casein. These substances act like opiates in his/her body. Instead of finding their way out of the child’s body, the large molecules of broken down gluten and casein get absorbed into their blood. This drug-like substance then makes the child “high.” The child’s behavior and responses to the environment become altered. Hence, autistic children who like eating ice cream, milk and sandwiches are said to be “addicted” to the opiate-like molecules. The theory goes that if these substances are removed from their diet, they become sober and their responses then become normal.
There is a lack of scientific data to support the theory that the gastrointestinal systems of children with autism are radically different from people without the disorder. The theory says that an autistic child’s intestines are more permeable, allowing the drug-like molecules of casein and gluten to leave their intestines. Other problems with eating behaviors include children being selective with the food they want to eat, establishing eating rituals and refusing to eat.
Because of the gluten and casein-free diet hype, many parents are rushing to apply the diet to their children. It is advisable to consult first with a doctor before altering a child’s diet. There are medical tests that can determine if a child has a food allergy. It can be dangerous to start on an elimination diet because the child may not get some of the nutrients his/her body needs. It is also best to consult with a nutritionist to make sure that the child receives proper nutrition even when on such a diet.
Aside from the gluten and casein-free diet, there are also other elimination diets that take out substances like yeast, food dyes and simple sugars. As with the gluten and casein-free diet, there is currently no hard scientific evidence supporting their efficacy.
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