Nutrition and Autism

I recently had the opportunity to attend a “Nutrition and Autism” seminar (what a hot topic in both communities!) presented by a Registered Dietitian and found that there are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about the cause and effect of Autism related to Nutrition.  It was amazing how much of the disease state is based around managing and trying to placate Gastrointestinal issues, sensory perception with food, rigidity at meal time, and providing a safe and comforting environment for the child to eat a healthy diet.  Whether you are a parent of an autistic child or have an autistic child in your child care setting, it is incredibly important to be dialed into their nutrition needs.  GI issues dont tend to be part of the diagnosis but they are very common.  Many children are unable to verbalize the pain they feel in their stomach and these issues can present as nutritional deficiencies, constipation, unexplained allergies, abdominal pain, diarrhea, irritability, anxiety and social withdrawal.  While the seminar went into an incredible amount of depth on signs and symptoms to look for, I thought the most important aspect to get across is diet intervention, nutrition issues, and the abundance of help available to families. It seemed as though most families are placed on a guided elimination diet and specific food changes, which has been shown to be very beneficial.  However, it was stressed that the entire family should partake in the diet, so to not ostracize the child that must be restricted in their eating.

    Elimination and restrictive diets seem to be one of the first lines of defense for autistic children. Whether it’s casein free, yeast free, additive free, sugar free, or gluten free, many parents feel the need to really focus on food products since its one that can be quite controlled.  Many autism organizations promote trying a diet to help offset the GI issues and the Autism Treatment Network found that over 53% of children with autism were on a casein-free/gluten-free diet.  Consequently, when restricting food in a growing child, it may exacerbate or cause some nutritional deficiencies, so it’s very important to work in tandem with a Registered Dietitian, Occupational Therapist, and your Pediatrician to ensure that your child is healthy and well-nourished prior to eliminating large food groups.  Furthermore, it may be necessary to obtain laboratory data that has a nutritional relevance, such as celiac testing for a gluten-free diet, to make certain the proper foods are being eliminated.  So what do all these elimination diets entail??

·      Casein-free:  No dairy products of any kind, including goat’s milk.  Can substitute with almond, soy, rice, coconut, or hemp milk.  Make sure to find a Vitamin D and Calcium replacement prior to elimination.  Dairy products are high in calories and fat so must consider the huge decrease in calories if trying to eliminate.  

·      Yeast-free:  No natural or refined sugars (including fruit), fermented foods (breads, vinegar, alcohol, cheese, soy sauce, coffee, peanuts, processed meats).

·      Additive-free:  Any foods with color additives (see my previous blog: The Hype About Food Dyes) such as Blue 1 and 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6.  Look for foods with natural dyes: beet, carotenes, annatto, capsanthin.  Go organic!

·      Sugar-free:  No refined sugars (natural sugars in fruit are fine to some).

·      Gluten-free:  Test for celiac first!  No barley, oats, wheat or rye.  Removes iron and B Vitamins.  Must be all or nothing!  Can replace with corn, potato, and soy.  Many gluten-free products on the market.

Again, please work with a Registered Dietitian and other Autism professionals when starting an elimination diet.  It can be a slippery slope when removing large food groups from a growing child’s diet and it is incredibly important to prevent any nutritional deficiencies. 

There are many, many resources available to parents with autistic children and some may be difficult to find, in addition to being quite expensive.  However, here are some very helpful links that can provide you with a wealth of information on programs throughout the state or your region that wont break the bank.

Autism Society of America - Great resource for all of your questions regarding autism.

Nutrition & Autism - Detailed information on nutrition related to autism

National Dissemination Center for Children with disabilities - Extensive info on disability and education law

Contact your local region to see if you qualify for free services!  Here are some in the Greater LA area....
Eastern Los Angeles Regional County

North Los Angeles Regional County

Pasadena Child Development Associates - Center that hosted seminar

Center for Disease Control

On a side note regarding autism and immunizations. Dr. Lancet, a researcher in England, was the dishonest doctor who postulated that autism was caused by vaccines.  Well, turns out that he was lying and his work was never replicated, despite many attempts (click here to read more about his erroneous study).  Today, multiple studies have not found any links with autism rates and immunizations, however, this is a very sensitive topic for many.  Following his bogus research study, Jenny McCarthy came out and essentially focused her son’s new autism diagnosis on vaccines, sparking a huge debate over the cause of autism.  While ideological “camps” were created (much due to tainted research), the silver lining was that it brought autism to the forefront of our consciousness and encouraged dialogue and objective, scientific considerations for autism and GI issues.

Jill Latham, MS


Jill Latham, MS Nutrition, Food Science and Dietetics

Throughout Jill’s life, nutrition, health, and exercise have always been the cornerstones of who she is. After a stint in the entertainment business following college graduation, Jill decided to go back to school to pursue a graduate degree in Nutrition and become a Registered Dietitian. Jill has a Master's of Science in Nutrition, Food Science and Dietetics and is a soon to be Registered Dietitian. Jill truly enjoys encouraging and teaching people how to eat nutritiously and live healthy! During her four years in school, Jill realized how much she liked educating children on the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, which lead her to develop a strong interest in fighting childhood obesity. Honored to be part of as the Nutrition contributor, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge on how to make healthy living a part of everyone’s lives, especially our children. Jill currently resides in Santa Barbara, California with her boyfriend and dog, Madison. She also loves to juice fruits and vegetables on a daily basis and exercise regularly! Please visit Jill’s nutrition, health, exercise, & wellness blog Nutrition Concierge. Jill is Founder and CEO of Vibrant Earth Juices