Autism and Diet


Gluten. Dairy. Soy. Sugar. It seems like everyone is cutting something from their diets these days. But for a growing number of families of children with autism, elimination diets are far more than just the latest trend.


Gastrointestinal disorders are among the most common medical conditions for individuals on the spectrum. Issues range from irritable and inflammatory bowel conditions, to chronic diarrhea and constipation, which children with autism are 3.5 times more likely to suffer from than their typically developing peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Since digestive issues can be difficult to pinpoint in individuals with autism who are very young or who are nonverbal, more and more parents are exploring whether there could be a gastrointestinal connection between their child’s behavior and their diet.



The biomedical approach


Dr. Mary Lou Hulseman began her hunt for answers on this subject twenty years ago, when her daughter, Hannah, was diagnosed with autism.


“She was a really bright kid and talked really well, but she had a lot of behavior problems,” Hulseman remembers. “We tried all the traditional therapies, but it wasn’t until I bumped into some information about diet and autism that we tried eliminating milk. It made a dramatic difference, and I thought, there is something biological happening here.”


Now a physician at Community Health Network’s Family Medicine Care on Indianapolis’ northeast side, Hulseman has spent her career investigating the link between diet and autism symptoms and works exclusively with families of individuals on the spectrum who are interested in exploring what is referred to as the biomedical approach – improving gut functioning by limiting sugar, avoiding gluten and casein and adding dietary supplements.



The diets


One of the most basic diets geared toward individuals with autism is the Gluten-Free, Casein-Free, Soy-Free diet, or GFCFSF, which cuts the three most common food allergens: gluten – a mixture of proteins found in wheat and other grains; casein — protein found in milk; and soy.


“It sounds really daunting to parents at first, but there are so many replacement products available today,” says Staci Small, a registered dietitian and owner of The Wellness Philosophy Inc. in Greenwood, who specializes in implementing diets for those with special needs.


Besides being common allergens, advocates of the biomedical approach cite research that shows the digestive tracts of individuals with autism often fail to fully digest certain peptides in gluten and casein, which can then bind to opioid receptors in the brain and cause behavioral problems, including sleepiness and inattention, or aggressive and self-abusive behavior.


“It’s literally like the kids are on heroin,” Hulseman says. “When we take away those foods slowly, typically we see kids’ behaviors start to change.”


The Special Carbohydrate Diet, or SCD, is another elimination diet often used by individuals on the spectrum, and focuses on grain-free, sugar-free, starch-free and unprocessed foods. The Gut and Psychology Syndrome, or GAPS diet, is a more advanced nutritional profile that’s intended to heal and seal the gut lining while restoring good bacteria to the digestive tract.



Getting started


For parents of children on the spectrum who are considering a diet adjustment, both Hulseman and Small recommend they seek out professional guidance from a trained professional who can assess, test and monitor a child’s progress.


The Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs has a list of area clinicians who work in the field on it’s website ( National nonprofit Talk About Curing Autism, or TACA, has a section on its website dedicated to research, recipes and how-to guides about different diets ( The local chapter hosts monthly Coffee Talks the third Thursday of each month at 7 pm at varying locations.


TACA Indiana Co-coordinator Karla Elliott, of Fishers, credits the group’s support for leading her to change the diet of her son Sam, age 10, several years ago.


“When Sam was diagnosed at 3, he was so sick nearly all the time, with alternating bouts of constipation and terrible diarrhea. He had lost all meaningful speech, and he didn’t interact with anyone in a meaningful way,” Elliott recalls. “After the diet change, Sam’s constipation and diarrhea improved dramatically within the first month, and he started talking to us, using real words with meaning and in context. The results were truly a prayer answered for us.”

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