May 20th, 2010
09:56 AM ET
By Trisha Henry
Keeping the proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and dairy out of the diets of children with autism does not lead to behavior improvements, new research has found.
While many doctors do not recommend a special diet as an autism therapy, there are widespread reports from families on the internet lauding the success of keeping foods containing gluten and casein out of an autistic child's diet. Currently, nearly one in three children with autism is given a gluten- and casein-free diet in an effort to reduce symptoms of the neurodevelopmental disease, study authors say.
Actress and activist Jenny McCarthy is one the most vocal parents who claims her son's autism symptoms improved when she switched his diet.
The cause of autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that hinders communication and social interaction, is not yet known and there is no cure. While there are a few science-based therapies, which applied early in a child's development can improve the behavior in some children, for many families finding way to help children can be challenging and lead them to try many unproven treatments.
Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in upstate New York put the gluten- and casein-free diet to most stringent test today, according to lead author Dr. Susan Hyman.
They looked at 14 children with autism between the ages of 2½ and 5½ years old – but without celiac disease or allergies to milk and wheat.
First they removed gluten and casein from the children’s diet. After four weeks, the children were randomly given either gluten or casein, both, or a placebo, through a carefully measured snack. Parents, teachers and a research assistants were questioned about the child's behavior before and after the snack was eaten.
"Under these controlled circumstances we did not find an effect on behavior in response to challenges with gluten and casein in children with autism but without GI disease," says Hyman.
Parents need to be aware of the potential cost and measure the benefit before they consider trying a new treatment for their child, says IMFAR Program Committee program chair, David Mandell.
Hyman and Mandell both say more studies need to be done looking at the effects of diet and the specific subtypes of autism.
The study is being released this weekend at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia.
Autism usually develops by the time a child is 3 years old. An average of 1 in 110 children suffers from some type of an autism spectrum disorder.
Children with autism can have one of several complex neurological disorders, which lead to social impairments, communication difficulties and restrictive and repetitive behaviors. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 1 in 110 children suffers from some type of an autism spectrum disorder.
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