Autism and Special Diets: No Proof They Work

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Can special diets treat autism? Actress Jenny McCarthy, author of Louder then Words and mother of a son who she says has "recovered from autism," thinks so. And so does Andrew Wakefield, the British physician who, in a discredited 1998 study, linked autism to bowel disease and the measles vaccine. But a new report says no.


There's no strong evidence that there's a connection between behavioral problems and gastrointestinal ailments. Does that mean that special diets don't help? After all, 1 in 5 children with autism are on one.

Not exactly. It's just that there's no proof—yet. The new report, published in the January issue of Pediatrics, calls for more rigorous research into the prevalence of digestive problems and whether special diets might help kids wirh autism. It suggests that doctors look out for nutritional deficiencies and recommends getting a nutritionist involved if necessary.

"The really important point is that there simply has not been enough research in this area," said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy group for families affected by the condition. "We simply don't have enough data to either support or not support the use of these diets."

One thing is certain: Children with autism do suffer from gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, bloating). But "they cannot explain their own symptoms," Dawson said. "Many of these children are nonverbal, and even the individuals who have language often can't reflect on their own feelings and talk about their own pain. So what happens is that they start becoming aggressive or throw tantrums, become self-injurious, and people interpret this as the autism rather than realizing that the child actually is experiencing a lot of pain."

The researchers also point out, a diet that helps one kid may not necessarily help another. So if you are planning to try out a special diet, be sure to consult an expert.

Do you have a child with autism? Does he have digestive problems? Is he on a special diet? Does it help with his behavioral or other problems?

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