March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASD, is a complex developmental and neurological condition that typically appears during the first three years of life. It affects brain function, particularly in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Classic symptoms include delayed talking, lack of interest in playing with other children, not wanting to be held or cuddled and poor eye contact. There is no known cause for ASD, but both genetics and environment are believed to play a role.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1 in every 68 American children has been identified with ASD. It is five times more common in boys than in girls.
People with ASD often repeat behaviors and have narrow, obsessive interests. These types of behavior can affect eating habits and food choices, and this can possibly lead to the following health concerns.
- Limited Food Selection/Strong Food Dislikes.Someone with autism may be sensitive to the taste, smell, color and/or texture foods. They may limit or totally avoid some foods and even whole groups of foods. Common dislikes include fruits, vegetables and slippery, soft foods.
- Not Eating Enough Food. Kids with autism may have difficulty focusing on one task for an extended period of time. It may be hard for a child to sit down and eat a meal from start to finish.
- Constipation. This problem is usually caused by a child's limited food choices. It can be remedied through a high-fiber diet, plenty of fluids and regular physical activity.
- Medication Interactions. Some stimulant medications used with autism, such as Ritalin, lower appetite. This can reduce the amount of food a child eats, which can affect growth. Other medications may increase appetite or affect the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. If your child takes medication, ask your health care provider about possible side effects.
What About a Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet?
Some people feel a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet improves the symptoms of autism. Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Casein is a protein found in milk. Proponents of the diet believe people with autism have a "leaky gut," or intestine, which allows parts of gluten and casein to seep into the bloodstream and affect the brain and central nervous system. The belief is that this may lead to autism or magnify its symptoms.
To date, controlled scientific studies have not proven this to be true. However, some people report relief in symptoms after following a GFCF diet. If you are considering a GFCF diet, talk with your health care team, including a registered dietitian nutritionist. There can be side effects and potential nutrient shortfalls when a GFCF diet is self-prescribed.
Working With a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Just about every child, with or without autism, can be choosy and particular about the foods he or she eats. A registered dietitian nutritionist can identify any nutritional risks based on how your child eats, answer your questions about diet therapies and supplements advertised as helpful for autism, and help guide your child on how to eat well and live healthfully.