Can The Autism Diet Help My Child?

If you’re an autism parent, then chances are you’ve spent quite a bit time on Google looking for ways to help you child. It’s likely you’ve come across various articles discussing diet. Some articles promise incredible results while others unequivocally claim they do not work at all. But, who do you trust, and can the autism diet help your child?

In this article:

I will give you my personal opinion on the autism diet, and I’ll discuss both sides of this debate. After reading this, you’ll be better informed, and able to answer this important question for yourself.

This is an in-depth article, and you may prefer to read it in its entirety or skip around to topics of interests. For your convenience, I have included links below that will allow you to jump to specific sections of this article.

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

Table Of Contents: Click To Jump To That Section
What is the autism diet anyway?
  1. How Can Diet Help
  2. What Both Sides Agree
  3. Do No Harm
In Support Of The Autism Diet
  1. 3 Most Common Reasons Diet Didn’t Work
  2. What Are The Potential Benefits
  3. Parent Testimonials
  4. My Experience With The Autism Diet
The Opposing Argument
  1. Subjective Research
  2. The Diet Is Not Safe
  3. Nutrient Deficiencies
  4. Both Sides Agree Inflammation Is Bad
  5. Higher Risk Of Heavy Metals From Gluten Free Diet
  6. It’s Too Hard
  7. Research Proves Diet Does Not Work
How Parents Should Evaluate Studies
Am I Biased
In Summary

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

Can the autism diet help my child? Yes, I absolutely believe diet and nutrition is one of the best natural treatments that can help kids with ASD. But, I review both sides of this discussion to help parents decide if a gluten-free, dairy-free (casein free) diet is right for their families. #autismdiet #autism #gfcf #gfcfsf

What Is The Autism Diet Anyway?

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In short, yes, I believe the autism diet can help your child, but I guess we should briefly describe what the diet is before going any further. The autism diet requires the removal of gluten, casein (dairy), and soy, which is why this diet is more often referred to as the GFCF Diet (gluten-free, casein-free) or GFCFSF Diet (gluten-free, casein-free, soy-free).

It’s important to note that there are a number of other diets that some call “autism diets”. However, they are all more refined, stricter versions of the GFCF Diet. Plus, GFCF is where many of us start, so for that reason this article is focused solely on gluten and casein(GFCF).

How Could An Autism Diet Help?

The theory behind the autism diet is these foods are causing disruptions in various biochemical functions of the body and causing inflammation. Additionally, many kids on the spectrum are sensitive to these proteins, which means they produce antibodies against them.

Basically, your immune system mounts an attack against the foods your child eats, similar to the way it would a virus. This means the immune system is always running on high which can then lead to chronic inflammation. In my opinion/experience, it’s the inflammation that drives and/or worsens autism symptoms.

Both Sides Agree

If you look at both sides of the debate, there are several points in which both parties agree.

  1. There is evidence that children with autism have elevated antibodies against these foods and elevated antibodies can cause inflammation.
  2. The presence of these antibodies does indeed interfere with brain function.
  3. A significant number of children with autism have gut-related issues or GI symptoms.

To me, these 3 points alone show that a healthy autism diet can help. If everyone agrees that gluten and casein triggers symptoms or an immune response and this response impairs the central nervous system (the brain), then of course removing these food triggers will help our kids.

Do No Harm

Additionally, the autism diet poses little to no risk to your child, so why not try it. The #1 rule for doctors is do no harm, and the GFCF diet poses no more or less harm than the standard American diet.

Of course, this is one point of contention that I’ll get into later, but for now, let’s just say that I believe a healthy gluten-free, casein-free diet is very safe. (see standard disclaimer at the end)

Personally, I think every parent should follow a healthy autism diet for their child. You should start at GFCF, and by working with a quality, integrative medical doctor, you can refine it to address the nutritional and medical issues specific to your child.

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

In Support Of The Autism Diet

There is quite a bit of research that shows incredible improvements for many children. Most researchers will say that diet can help about 50% of ASD kids, but I have seen that percentage as high as 90%. You can find links to several studies at the end of this article, so you can judge them for yourself.

My go-to person for nutritional guidance on this subject is Julie Matthews. She has been practicing and researching in this area for over a decade, and now teaches other doctors and professionals how to implement a healthy autism diet for their patients.

Her estimate is that 85% of children see improvements with a healthy autism diet, and there is often a reason the other 15% do not see improvement.

3 Most Common Reasons Autism Diet Didn’t Work:
1) 100% Compliance

Most of the time, diet didn’t work because it wasn’t followed strictly enough. The child must be 100% gluten and casein free. There are no cheat days for the GFCF diet. Remember, our bodies are producing antibodies against these foods, and every time gluten and casein is consumed that immune response ramps back up.

It can take up to 6 months for those antibodies to be completely gone. This means if you’re allowing your child to have a cupcake at a birthday party just once every 3 months, that immune system is not being allowed to stop producing antibodies.

Also, with thousands of products containing hidden sources of gluten and casein, parents may be inadvertently giving their kids gluten and casein.

2) Not Enough TIme

Another reason some do not show improvements is simply because the child’s body wasn’t given enough time to heal. Remember, it can take up to 6 months for the body to stop producing antibodies, so if you only try a GFCF diet for a few weeks, you may deem the autism diet ineffective and stop too soon.

It can several months before you begin to see improvements, so don’t stop too soon.

3) Too Much Packaged Foods

Finally, many parents heavily rely on packaged gluten-free foods. A majority of these foods contain tons of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients that do not promote healing. It’s universally accepted that most highly processed and packaged foods are not healthy.

Just because there is a gluten-free label on the package does not mean it’s good for your child’s health. Parents who rely on these prepackaged foods are much less likely to see a benefit from any autism diet.

Can the autism diet help my child? Yes, I absolutely believe diet and nutrition is one of the best natural treatments that can help kids with ASD. But, I review both sides of this discussion to help parents decide if a gluten-free, dairy-free (casein free) diet is right for their families. #autismdiet #autism #gfcf #gfcfsf

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

What Are The Potential Benefits Of The Autism Diet?

Every ASD child is different and thus, the potential benefits are as varied as the children themselves. However, studies report a general improvement in autism symptoms and behaviors.

Of course, this is a subjective statement as it is difficult to quantify or scientifically judge autism symptoms such as anxiety, attention, social skills, and temperament.

There are autism symptoms that are easier to notice improvements such as eye contact, toe-walking, skin rashes, decrease in GI symptoms(constipation, diarrhea), and even fewer seizures.

Attempting To Quantify Improvements

Studies do attempt to better quantify these results by using industry accepted tests, rating scales, or questionnaires like the ATEC, CARS-2, ADOS,..etc. One such study was published in a peer reviewed journal just a few months ago (May 2018).

According to the authors of this study,

“it definitively proves that nutrition and dietary intervention do, in fact, significantly reduce the symptoms and behaviors associated with individuals with Autism.”

Below is a summary of the findings of this study: (from NourishingHope.com)

The comprehensive nutrition approach significantly improved:
  • Cognitive function, 6.7 point increase in IQ
  • Developmental age increased by 18 months in the treatment group vs. 4 months in the non-treatment group
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Speech, sociability, irritability, hyperactivity, and more

“The study also shows that no matter the age of the individual with autism, diet and nutrition intervention can help.” -Co-author Julie Matthews

**You can find links to this study as well as many others in support of dietary interventions for autism at the end of this article.**

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

Real Parent Testimonials

I have worked with and spoken to many parents who can attest to seeing huge benefits. One child said his first words just days after going GFCF, and another child stopped head-banging and hand-flapping. Many parents tell me the autism diet was the #1 intervention they have done for their child.

Autism Diet Leads To A Loss In Autism

I interviewed Cara Comini on my podcast. We discussed her journey and how after 3 days on the GFCF Diet she saw miraculous improvements in her daughter. “Cara recalls, “She woke up the brain fog was gone. She started talking, sleeping better, and stopped melting down.”

Now in this particular case, after a short time those improvements went away. This led Cara to a stricter version of GFCF called the GAPS Diet.(one of those other autism diets I talked about earlier). Eventually, Cara’s daughter lost her autism diagnosis, and this Mom believes diet and improved gut health is the reason she lost her autism diagnosis.

You can hear her full story on episode 4 of The Happy Healthy Family Podcast.

Can the autism diet help my child?

My Personal Experience With The Autism Diet

My son has been on a special diet for his autism since he was 3 (he’s 12 now). We have refined it as his needs change and as directed by his doctor. In my case, we did not see major improvements in autism behavior or symptoms. However, after about 6 months on the diet, we saw improvements in sleep and his immune system was better able to fight off infections.

Before the diet, my son would get sick very often. Additionally, whenever he got sick, he would be very sick requiring strong medicine to help him overcome the illness. After dietary changes, he didn’t get sick as often, and when he did he was able to fight it off on his own.

Why Do I Continue To Believe In The Autism Diet?

You may be wondering why we continue to keep our son on a special diet if it’s not improving his autism. First, it’s not really a diet anymore. It has become our lifestyle. As a family, we follow the paleo diet (again a more refined gluten, casein free diet).

I believe diet provides the foundation for all healing and all improvements. My son has a lot of medical issues (PANS, candida, impaired detoxification) that have proved challenging to overcome. Yet, we remain steadfast in our commitment to help him become the best version of himself that he can be.

Working with his doctor, we are still implementing various treatment protocols. Some work wonders, and others not so much. The one thing that remains constant is diet because it provides the right fuel for these treatments and keeps inflammation from getting out of control.

Can the autism diet help my child? alt =Yes, I absolutely believe diet and nutrition is one of the best natural treatments that can help kids with ASD. But, I review both sides of this discussion to help parents decide if a gluten-free, dairy-free (casein free) diet is right for their families. #autismdiet #autism #gfcf #gfcfsf

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

The Opposing Argument

Of course, there is a dissenting opinion on whether or not the autism diet helps ASD children. I think I’ve made my position pretty clear, but let’s look at some of the arguments that I have seen repeated across the interwebs.

  • Inadequate/Subjective Research
  • Too restrictive and leads to nutrient deficiencies
  • Gluten-free diets have higher risk of heavy metals
  • It’s too hard
  • Research proves diet doesn’t work
Can The Autism Diet Help My Child: The Opposing Argument

Inadequate Or Subjective Research

Those that argue against the autism diet will say that the research supporting it is flawed. Most of the time they will point to small sample sizes, and results are based upon parental reporting, which makes them too subjective to be scientifically valid. They also point out that these studies do not control for confounding factors.

This Is True…But,

These are very accurate positions, and they are a real barrier to widespread acceptance of using diet to treat autism. It’s hard to design a study with a large sample size that controls for confounding factors and does not involve parental reporting.

In order to control for all aspects of a child’s diet and lifestyle, you would have to convince hundreds of parents to send their kids away for months to live in a lab/facility where all variables can be controlled? I don’t know any parent that would sign up for that.

Hard To Quantify Improvement in Autism

I briefly touched on this earlier, but because of the nature of autism with its varied severities and symptoms, it is difficult to quantify things like social behavior, anxiety, and focus.

I’m certain there is a percentage of parents/practitioners on both sides of the argument that have perceived the behaviors/symptoms of the child inaccurately. Let me give you an example.

Story Time

My wife and I were about to start a brand new supplement for our son. For whatever reason, we did not start it, but that day we observed huge swings in anxiety and self-injurious behavior. My wife and I both agreed had we started this new supplement, we would have attributed the sudden spike in anxiety to the new supplement.

We wondered how often we credited an unexpected regression to a food or treatment when in fact, it may not have been the cause.

From this example, you can see how some can misread what’s going on with the ASD child, especially if that child is low-functioning and nonverbal like ours.

Just Because It’s Hard To Prove Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Valid

Having said that, just because something is hard to prove doesn’t automatically make it invalid. It’s important not to dismiss the observations of parents on the wellbeing of their children, and with so many parents reporting improvements, it’s definitely something warranting further research.

We need more comprehensive studies like the one I mentioned earlier, and less arguing against the potential for diet to help autism.

Remember, there is no real harm in a healthy autism diet, so why is there so many outspoken critics against it? I don’t really have an answer for that.

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child: The Opposing Argument

Some Question The Safety Of The Autism Diet

Another popular argument against diet for autism is that it is not safe. Many will even go as far as saying it’s dangerous. Thankfully, this position usually doesn’t come from the scientists who are actually conducting the research. (many of them will say there is no harm to doing an autism diet in their research papers)

This stance typically comes from larger organizations, bloggers, or so called journalists. I’m not going to speculate as to why they make this claim, but I will address whether or not you should consider a special diet for autism to be dangerous.

Nutrient Deficiencies

People will say that removing gluten and casein from the diet will lead to severe nutrient deficiencies, but there are several things that I want to bring to your attention to address this claim.

First, there is absolutely no reason you can not get enough nutrition through a GFCF diet. My son eats paleo which is even more restrictive. He eats a larger variety foods than I ever did when I was growing up on the food pyramid. However, you do have to be purposeful about what you give your kids and create a healthy GFCF diet for your family.

Fiber & Fortified Vitamins

Still, they will tell you that without grains you can’t get enough fiber. That is simply not true. You can get plenty of fiber with fruits, vegetables, beans, gluten-free grains, and nuts/seeds.

They also will point to the breads and cereals that are fortified with vitamins and if you don’t eat them you’ll have deficiencies. These foods are fortified because they are devoid of nutrients in their highly processed state.

Furthermore, the vitamins that come in these products are not in bioavailable form, especially for ASD kids with sensitive digestive systems.

Many kids on the spectrum have genetic mutations (like MTHFR) that prevent them from converting these vitamins into a useable form for their bodies, and these foods can even make their GI symptoms worse (thus making their autism symptoms worse).

These Kids Are Already Malnourished

When you come across any articles that claim a GFCF diet is dangerous, you’ll often see somewhere in that article, the author talks about how kids with autism are incredibly picky eaters.

They will even admit that kids will self-restrict their diets and may eat only one or two foods. Now, my response to that is, how is going GFCF any less nutritious than only eating one or two foods?

These kids are already malnourished, and the few foods they do eat contain little nutritional value. (chicken nuggets, french fries, potato chips…etc) This is something both parties agree. Kids with autism are notoriously picky eaters and they self-restrict their diet, which means they are already in danger of nutrient deficits.

I don’t understand how critics can admit this, and then say GFCF is too restrictive. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Perhaps, they say this because if a child is only eating chicken nuggets and mac n cheese (gluten and casein), then taking away gluten and casein takes away everything they eat.

Insulting To All Parents


But, it’s not as if we parents will let our kids starve. We work hard to expand their palates and can replace those foods with GFCF alternatives. To assume, parents who choose an autism diet would simply let the kid starve is, quite frankly, insulting to parents.

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child: The Opposing Argument
Everyone Agrees That Inflammation Is Bad

Remember those consensus points I mentioned at the beginning of this article? We all agree that most kids with autism produce antibodies to gluten and casein, and this causes inflammation in the gut and interferes with brain function.

When there is inflammation in the gut, you’re digestive system will not function as well. It doesn’t matter what you eat. If you’re gut is inflamed you’re not absorbing or using the nutrition in your food to begin with. This again means these kids are malnourished before starting nutritional or dietary interventions.

A Reasonable Conclusion


If we take a step back and use a little common sense, we can see there is a clear advantage to removing gluten and casein and a clear flaw in the claim that autism diets are dangerous.

Can the autism diet help my child? The Opposing Argument

One Thing I Do Agree With:

There is one aspect of the GFCF is dangerous claim that I agree with. There is a risk with heavy metals and a gluten-free diet. Parents following a GFCF diet often rely on gluten-free packaged food and rice is the most common substitute for gluten. Unfortunately, rice has been found to have high amounts of toxins like arsenic and mercury.

Consuming too many packaged gluten free foods can not only prevent you from seeing any benefits from the autism diet, but it may also present a real risk of introducing these dangerous toxins.

This is why I tell my readers and GFCF coaching clients that just because something says gluten-free, does not mean it is healing. When following an autism diet, you should try to limit rice and GFCF packaged foods and eat whole foods as much as possible.

The Diet Is Too hard

This is another argument that you’ll find online. Because there are thousands of products containing gluten and casein, it’s incredibly difficult to comply with this diet.

While that is very true, it’s no reason not to try. Going to college is incredibly hard. Becoming a doctor is hard. Being a parent is certainly not easy either, so should we advocate against having a family because it’s so hard? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

It Can Be Done (and it gets easier)

Yes, going GFCF is tough, but it can be done. I’ve done it for nearly a decade, and it’s quite easy now. Hundreds of thousands of people have somehow followed a gluten, casein free diet for one reason or another.

We can’t make the fact that it’s hard deter us from trying something that can help our kids with autism. If you need help, there are people, like me, that can help. I have many resources on this website including a free guide to the GFCF diet, and for those who want more hands on help,
I am available for coaching as well. The autism diet can help your child and it can be done. It may even be easier than you think.

Can the autism diet help my child? Yes, I absolutely believe diet and nutrition is one of the best natural treatments that can help kids with ASD. But, I review both sides of this discussion to help parents decide if a gluten-free, dairy-free (casein free) diet is right for their families. #autismdiet #autism #gfcf #gfcfsf

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

Critics Say Research Proves Diet Doesn’t Work

So far, the opposing argument against the autism diet tells parents that there’s inadequate research, the diet is dangerous, and it’s too hard. There is one more argument that critics make, which is research proves diet simply doesn’t work.

There are numerous blogs and articles that definitively say diet does not work for autism. However, when you dive deeper into these articles and the research they use to support their argument, you will find that these studies suffer from the same exact limitations that the ones proving the autism diet does help kids.

Critics Contradict Themselves

Remember, many critics claim that research supporting the diet are too subjective, rely on parental reporting, and have a small sample size. So, why do these same critics point to studies that relied on parental reporting with small sample sizes to smack down the notion that autism diets can help.

Here’s An Example

I found this article fairly quickly when I Googled do autism diets work. The title is “Debunking the Myth of GFCF Diets Improving Autism Symptoms.” In this article, there are 2 studies the author used to “debunk the myth”.

One study is about supplementation and autism more than it is about the GFCF diet. Quite frankly the author’s interpretation of this study is incredibly misleading, but because it has nothing to do with diet, let’s dismiss this one. However, you can read the study for yourself (link at the end of this article).

The Relevant Study

The other study cited here is titled:”The Gluten-Free/Casein-Free Diet: A Double-Blind Challenge Trial in Children with Autism.” Looking at this study, you see the sample size was only 14 kids. They were placed on GFCF diets for 4-6 weeks. Then, they were challenged with a gluten or casein snack every 12 weeks.

As you can see, this study has those same limitations including small sample size and subjective reporting.

Several key points:
  1. Findings: “no significant improvement on physiologic functioning, behavior problems, or autism symptoms.”
  2. As you can see 14 kids is a small sample size, and we really can’t expect statistically significant findings in a study of only 14.
  3. Reporting of findings are subjective
Most Importantly

The participants in this study were on the diet for 4-6 weeks. One of the most common reasons diet doesn’t work is because enough time was not given for the body to adjust. Remember, it takes up to 6 months for the immune system to stop producing antibodies against gluten/casein and that is only if you stop eating them.

The children in this study were only on the diet for about a month and then “challenged” every 12 weeks, which means their immune systems may not have had enough time to calm down. It’s reasonable to assume we would not see any benefit if those antibodies were still present.

It’s also important to note, that the researchers did not look at antibodies or even nutritional profiles of the participants at any time during the study.

Next Time


The next time you see a video or come across an article stating the diet doesn’t work, go a step further and look at the actual study they’re using. Look at the study design. Placebo controlled, double-blind does not matter if the study was not designed well to begin with OR, if it is too small to draw any real conclusions.

How To Evaluate The Efficacy of Any Study: Answer These Questions
  1. What’s the sample size?
  2. How long was the study conducted?
  3. Is the findings accurately represented in the article or video?
  4. What factors were researchers able to control for?
  5. Is their bias or conflict of interest?

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

Am I Biased?

While I point out that many authors of blogs, articles, and research studies are biased. They believe it won’t work and such interpret their findings to support their hypothesis.

In the spirit of transparency, I must point out that many will call me biased. I’ve mentioned my GFCF coaching program and I have many articles on the autism diet throughout this site.

As such, I stand to potentially benefit from more acceptance of the autism diet, and I am certain any critics of this approach would be quick to point this out.

I Believe In The Autism Diet

Let me assure you that my opinion about dietary approaches for autism, was solidified long before I created this website. We started the GFCF Diet in 2009, and this site wasn’t created until 2016.

On I’mSimplyADad.com, I focus on the GFCF diet because I believe in it, and because that is where I believe I can serve my fellow autism parents best.

Does that make my biased, maybe. Does it make the information I’ve just shared wrong? I’ll let you decide.

Can The Autism Diet Help My Child:

In Summary

While I readily admit that research in support of the autism diet is flawed, so is the research against it. To me, it is quite improbable to design a study that will indisputably say one way or another. There will always be a variable or confounding factor that cannot be controlled in a study.

Once again, I point out the 3 facts that both sides agree.
  1. There is evidence that many children with autism have elevated antibodies against gluten and casein and these elevated antibodies can cause inflammation.
  2. The presence of these antibodies does indeed interfere with brain function.
  3. A significant number of children with autism have gut-related issues or GI symptoms

Again, looking at those 3 factors alone, a reasonable person can see that the GFCF diet can help a lot of kids on the spectrum. I personally believe that diet is the necessary first step in helping kids with autism and it provides the foundation for future progress.

Remember, there is no real harm in a healthy autism diet, so why not give it a try, and see if it helps your child.

Leave a comment:

After reading this article, what do you think? Can the autism diet help children on the spectrum?
Standard disclaimer:

Remember, I’m simply a Dad sharing the knowledge and experience I’ve learned over the past 8 years. The content in this guide is for informational purposes and should not be considered medical advice.

 

 

References/Further Reading:
Can the autism diet help my child?

The following list is just a sampling of the research that is available. My intent is to provide information on both sides of the argument.

Gluten/Casein Antibodies In Autism
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3747333/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27416160
Gastrointestinal Issues in Autism
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5968124/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12378124
In Support Of Diet & Nutrition For Autism
  • https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/3/369/htm
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3540005/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3515887/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16555138
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19664354
  • https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10882-010-9217-x
  • https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1362361399003001005
  • https://openaccesspub.org/ijn/article/558
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11842874
Against Diet & Nutrition For Autism (including inclusive findings)
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12153499
  • https://www.dovepress.com/a-review-of-gluten–and-casein-free-diets-for-treatment-of-autism-2005-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-NDS
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26343026
  • http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/139/6/e20170346
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Dietary+Supplementation+in+Children+with+Autism+Spectrum+Disorders%3A+Common%2C+Insufficient%2C+and+Excessive
  • https://www.relias.com/blog/debunking-the-myth-of-gfcf-diets-improving-autism-symptoms
  • https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/reviews/going-gluten-free-unlikely-to-help-most-people-with-autism/
  • https://www.forbes.com/sites/tarahaelle/2017/05/26/autistic-children-dont-benefit-from-special-diets-and-supplements-study-shows/#76152a147cc
Additional Reading:

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