World Autism Day, which occurs annually on April 2nd, kicks off Autism Awareness Month, which aims to spread awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD refers to a broad range of conditions that are characterized by challenges with repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communications, and social skills. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 59 children in the United States are affected by autism.
Autism Awareness Month
The Autism Society was founded in 1965 and began to raise awareness in the early 1970s via nationwide campaigns. Every April since 1970 has celebrated the differences of those on the spectrum, and the intention has been to support and educate the public about autism. What most people don’t know about autism is that growing evidence supports that dietary intervention may be an effective treatment.
Medical experts conducted large-scale studies about altering gut health to reduce the symptoms of ASD. Caregivers have traditionally focused on rehabilitation, educational intervention, or medications, but dietary intervention may be a better and more affordable approach to manage symptoms. A review of 150 papers on ASD and gut bacteria found the links between composition of gut bacteria and autistic behavior. The growth of bad bacteria in the gut is largely attributed to diets rich in processed foods, refined sugars, gluten, meats, and dairy products. The build-up of bad bacteria can make the gut lining more permeable. Toxins can then get into the bloodstream and travel to the brain. Children under three years old are at the height of brain development, so the presence of these toxins in the brain may increase the risk of ASD.
Causes Of Imbalanced Gut Microbiota In Infants
Dr. Quinrui Li of Peking University, China, explains that the presence of bad bacteria in the gut is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Maternal obesity and diabetes during pregnancy, the overuse of antibiotics in babies, how a baby is delivered, and breastfeeding times can all factor into the development of ASD. Dr. Li’s review focused on restoring healthy gut bacteria via probiotics, prebiotics, and removing gluten and casein protein (found in dairy products) from diet. All of these had positive impact on ASD symptoms.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet
Some children with ASD have experienced reduced symptoms after following the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which restricts the consumption of all grains, dairy products, certain vegetables, and carbohydrates with more than one molecule. This diet was developed to treat gastrointestinal disorders like celiac disease and ulcerative colitis, but children with autism, many of whom experience digestive conditions, have benefited from it as well. The trick with this diet is understanding what foods contain all of these ingredients. Not all labels will list gluten or casein additives. For instance, canned tuna or salmon may contain casein that isn’t labeled. And it is important to be strict with this diet, meaning that you shouldn’t cave for special occasions. Food oriented holidays can be tricky, but you just have to find healthier substitutes because the wellbeing of the child is what matters most. A special occasion does not have to be gluten- or casein-oriented!
Each child is different, so a particular diet may work for one child and won’t work for the other. If you plan on changing a child’s diet, it’s all about starting slow and not jumping in too fast. It is best to slowly eliminate certain foods from the diet and replace them with healthier alternatives. Successful alternatives can make feeding time much easier.
Researchers are encouraged by the fact that improved gut health can potentially reduce ASD symptoms. Large scale studies need to be conducted to further support this preliminary evidence. For now, behavioral therapy remains a great option, but improving the gut microbiota may be a more effective treatment in the future.