May 20th, 2010
09:56 AM ET

Study: Gluten-free diets do not improve autism behavior

By Trisha Henry
CNN Medical Producer

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.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (197 Responses)
  1. Alda

    4 weeks is not often, to take off the gluten from the body takes much more, you start to see some effects most of the time after more than 4 weeks. Oxycare in Jordan gives very interesting statistics on their website. In UK 66% of the families saw an improvement. An Asperger called Luke Jackson has written very good books on the change of his behavior with a diet or without. He wrote it at 14 years old.

    May 1, 2013 at 21:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. fnord

    So the problem is that your study was poorly designed.
    The kids would most likely have shown some change during the 4 weeks of abstinence, whether or not the parents knew what to look for.
    Typically with wheat, the results show up 2 or more days *after* the re-introduction, and only after it's been taken away again.
    Typically with dairy, it takes longer to get the better results, and longer to get the negative impacts.
    With corn, the reactions are more immediate, sometimes within minutes.
    Sometimes, we didn't see the results of the re-introduction: it was the teacher who told us that the child had had a very bad day at school. We didn't even make the connection, until he mentioned that he dreaded the week after a visit to the access parent, and one day asked if we knew "what had gotten into" the child. We'd tried corn that morning. Apparently he also had a melt-down on the school bus.

    If the timnig of the study is geared to avoid the timing of the most likely reactions, of course it'll show no connection.

    One wonders, though, if those designing the test (a) didn't bother to find out when to anticipate reactions, or (b) did bother, and designed the study accordingly.

    Which leads to the question: who funded the study?

    - fnord

    August 25, 2013 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Visitor

    BS....... for many it clearly helps. Some people are dim.

    August 26, 2013 at 17:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dave Fields

    Everyone loves it when people come together and share ideas. Great blog, keep it up.


    June 21, 2014 at 23:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Dr Mike Dammond

    It takes 6 weeks to see if the diet has made and improvement. Thats how long it take all traces of casein to leave the body. Therefore making this research completely and utterly useless.

    July 2, 2014 at 00:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Antone Eliszewski

    You might have talked some good details on the topic, are you working to do a FAQ about this issue in the future, as i have some much more doubts that will likely be common to other readers.


    July 19, 2014 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Autism Can Be Cured

    How can you say such things? How can you say that autism cannot be cured when there is proof it can??? The Son-Rise Program in the Autism Treatment Center of America already cured thousands of children with autism including my nephew. I was actually the one that did the Son-Rise program with him. Parents don't dispair! don't believe this nonsense!! AUTISM CAN BE CURED!! Here is a link to the beginning of a journey that will cure your child: http://www.autismtreatmentcenter.org/ Lots of luck!

    October 8, 2015 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Carol price

    My personal experience tells me this article is absolutely not true. My son was wild before I put him on the diet. We were at our wits end. It took an entire summer to put it in place with locks on pantries and the refrigerator. I had to send 3nd his older sister to live with his grandmother. We stayed locked up in the house. My husband did the shopping. The difference after that summer was remarkable

    April 27, 2016 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. maukwa

    This article is a joke. A gluten free diet for children with autism is not only about behavior. Many children with autism are gluten intolerant. Consuming gluten results in gastrointestinal issues. Avoiding gluten and in some cases dairy products rectifies the problem.

    August 27, 2018 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.