Oct 23

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Can a Gluten-Free Diet Help Autism?

Can a Gluten-Free Diet Help Autism?

Can a Gluten-Free Diet Help Autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) remains a mystery to both parents and medical professionals alike. There is no one particular cause, yet the rate of diagnosis remain at a record high. Currently, there is no cure. Given these facts, many families are increasingly turning towards lifestyle modifications as a means to improve ASD symptoms. The gluten-free diet is the most popular dietary modification because many autistic children experience improved symptoms—especially behavioral problems. Before switching your child’s entire diet, learn the facts about a gluten-free diet and consider the possibility of working with a dietitian.

What Does “Gluten-Free” Mean?

Gluten is a protein that is naturally present in:

  • wheat

  • barley

  • semolina

  • brewer’s yeast

  • rye

This means that gluten could very well be present in some of your child’s everyday foods. This includes:

  • bread

  • cereal

  • crackers

  • pasta

Going gluten-free means that you avoid any foods containing gluten. Still, you don’t necessarily have to give up your family’s favorite foods. Thankfully, there are numerous types of gluten-free versions of popular products available on the market. You can now find gluten-free breads and cereals, as well as pasta and baked goods that don’t have gluten in them.

Possible Benefits for ASD

There are numerous potential health benefits of a gluten-free diet. When it comes to ASD, there is a belief that this type of diet can help alleviate symptoms. Gluten itself is thought to have an adverse effect on the brain, and one which autistic children may be more sensitive to. Researchers are studying whether autistic children’s bodies allow gluten to leak through the intestinal wall and into the blood, thereby making its way to the brain. Some proponents even believe that gluten can cause autism. Clinical studies have not yet proven a link between gluten and autism. The fact is, however, that many families are finding relief with gluten-free diets. Reports of increased attention and fewer outbursts are numerous. If you are willing to make the necessary changes, going gluten-free may be worth a shot. At this point, you should consider keeping a food diary and jotting down your child’s behavior for the day. This can help you determine which foods, if any, might be contributing to ASD symptom relief. It also makes it easier to identify potential aggravating foods.

Challenges and Considerations Before Making the Switch

The greatest concern with switching a child to a gluten-free diet is the possibility of inadequate nutrition. Just as adults must be aware of their nutrients, children might miss out on certain nutrients if they aren’t replaced. Switching from fortified breads, for example, can cause a deficit in certain B vitamins, as well as vitamin D. If you cannot find other adequate resources your child likes, you may need to add a supplement to his or her diet. Perhaps the greatest challenge is catering to your child’s dietary preferences when making the switch. Autistic children tend to have narrow interests, and this can also apply to food. You may find, for example, that your child only eats certain types of foods or asks for one particular food over and over again. Children with ASD are often picky about textures, which can make matters more difficult. This is especially the case if your child’s former favorite food happens to contain gluten. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you’re worried that your child’s diet is too limited. It’s worth noting here that many families who switch to gluten-free diets for ASD are also inadvertently opting for a bigger variety of foods. This alone might have positive impacts. Finally, you should strongly consider recruiting a dietitian familiar with ASD as part of your new gluten-free plan. This type of professional specializes in a wide range of diets, as well as an expertise in nutritional requirements for various age groups.


Autism Spectrum Disorders and Diet. (2014, April). Retrieved from http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6815

Gluten Sensitivity. (2014, September 9). Retrieved from https://www.gluten.net/resources/gluten-sensitivities/

Williams, Kent. (2014). How Helpful is the Casein-Gluten-Free Diet? Retrieved from http://www.autismspeaks.org/node/112986

Author Bio: Kristeen Cherney is a freelance health and lifestyle writer who also has a certificate in nutrition. Her work has been published on numerous health-related websites. Previously, she worked as a communications and marketing professional. Kristeen holds a BA in Communication from Florida Gulf Coast University, and is currently pursuing an MA in English with a concentration in rhetoric and cultural studies. When she’s not writing or studying, she enjoys walking, kick-boxing, yoga, and traveling.

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