Diet for Autism Support (ASD)
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
When I started practising as a naturopath in 1993, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) wasn’t widely diagnosed. I feel that part of the reason was that doctors and psychologists at the time perhaps didn’t have a name for some of the behavioural traits.
As a baby boomer, the lifestyle that we lived as children was quite different to today. We spent lots of time playing outdoors. Processed foods were a minor part of our diet, take-away food was minimal, and sugar was not as prevalent in foods as it is today.
Now there is an abundance of preservatives, chemicals and additives in processed foods – and food is denatured with lower levels of nutrients (apart from most organic food). There are chemicals and toxins in the environment and our homes. Stress levels are higher, there is more electromagnetic radiation (phones, computers, cars) and many other epigenetic factors that can affect us.
Over the last few years I have seen a huge escalation of children with some form or level of autism and I feel that today’s lifestyle and diet have a major influence.
Over recent years I’ve observed the beneficial effect on numerous children and adults with ASD as a result of eating a clean, simple unprocessed diet that is gluten free, dairy free and very low in additives.
I found that when families embrace this way of living, generally behaviour is more stable, attention levels are more focused, and energy levels are higher.
Food additives alone can be a terrible culprit for bad behaviour, mood swings and poor attention. I remember when my daughter in her early years of school was given a red and a green jelly ‘frog’ reward by the principal for good behaviour in class.
Fortunately, she brought them home so she could show me that she had been a good girl at school. Luckily for the teacher, she didn’t eat them, or they would have seen her behaviour change to ‘crazy’ and wonder why they gave her the reward in the first place.
I did speak with the principal and suggested that it was wrong to use food as a reward for behaviour as this can set-up all sorts of potential behavioural issues later in life, such as overeating for comfort, anorexia, bulimia and self-worth issues. I also mentioned that artificial food additives and sugar were not suitable foods for growing little bodies.
The point was taken and rewards became stars, early marks, special pencils and positive words of encouragement.
These days there are many companies making additive-free healthy fun ‘treats’ for families.
As mentioned, from my observations in clinic, along with numerous published reports from parents with ASD children, a gluten free, dairy free and low additives diet has been most beneficial.
However, certain food chemical sensitivities that may impact ASD are foods high in salycilates, oxalates, phenols, amines/histamines or glutamates and aspartates.
If you have already tried a gluten free, dairy free and low additive diet and have not seen any significant difference, then it is certainly worth discussing these food chemicals with your practitioner as there are many children who have one or more food chemical sensitivities. Specific chemical avoidance diet plans can also be considered.
While these have not been confirmed by science (as yet) I find it hard to ignore anecdotal evidence – particularly the opinions and experiences of parents of ASD children. Sugar can also be a major contributor to behavioural disruptions and hyperactivity.
Another new diet type emerging to support families with children (or adults) with ASD is the Ketogenic Diet, which is showing promising results with neurological imbalances, behavioural disorders/changes, and helping with sleep, restlessness and attention. Studies show that keto style diets help change ‘glutamate’ activity (excitatory) in the brain into GABA (relaxation) neurotransmitter activity – often deficient in those with ASD.
If you would like to consider a Ketogenic Diet, please speak to your practitioner first to be sure this is right for you or your child/adult in your care. It’s important to check with a qualified, experienced health practitioner for advice on any dietary changes.
Support from your health care practitioner is also important to ensure that other possible imbalances are investigated, such as heavy metal toxicity, nutrient deficiencies, allergies, gut toxicity, leaky gut, parasitic infections, metabolic disorders such as pyrrole, genetic disorders such as MTHFR, CBS pathways and COMT gene pathways.
Many parents told me how their children changed completely (in a good way) once their parasitic infection was treated, so it’s definitely worth looking into.
Most of these kids don’t seem to display any outward noticeable gut symptoms, but when tested it can be a different story. Often the child may confess later to having had tummy upsets or bowel disturbances, but were not aware that this was abnormal until their symptoms went and then they knew how they should really feel.
Some adults with Asperger’s have found they can enjoy life better when their Zinc and B6 levels were balanced in combination with being off gluten and sugar. It’s very common to find kids and adults alike who have high levels of copper (a zinc antagonist), mercury, lead and especially aluminium (picked up with hair analysis).
I don’t really know why high levels of aluminium are in the bodies of young kids. I have done hundreds of hair-mineral analyses over the years on children and adults and in general, aluminium has been high in alarming numbers. Arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium are also not uncommon.
There have been various theories along with ‘for and against’ arguments that increased aluminium exposure is from the use of deodorants and vaccines. So far…inconclusive.
I feel there is no ‘safe’ level of these contaminants in our bodies. I see higher levels today than twenty or so years ago.
Having said that, when I had my first child in 1986, I had been working in a laboratory where I tested my breast milk because I wasn’t sure why my baby wasn’t feeding properly. It was not something that was normally tested, but I was horrified to see the report because it showed that I was loaded with DDT and other highly toxic organo-phosphate pesticides.
So where was this coming from? The only identifiable source was from the ‘healthy’ non-organic food I ate which contained chemicals. Those chemicals are now banned but others are still in use including glyphosates (aka Roundup).
I then did some investigations of my own and started to test things I was eating, such as ‘free range’ eggs (non-organic) and found them to be loaded with horrible things.
I don’t want to stir up a controversy, but if possible, please consider eating organic food while pregnant or breastfeeding, particularly foods containing fat, as fat is where toxins are stored. Organic is also desirable for nuts, seeds and especially legumes such as soy beans and peanuts.
At one stage I worked on a research project to find the best way to remove pesticide and herbicide contaminants from soil. The result was that soybeans won hands down, being the best at sucking contaminants out of soil.
Any nut, seed, legume or high fat food that gets nutrients from the ground, including animal fats, will be potentially full of toxins unless Certified Organic.
The reports vary, but between 50% to 90% of our toxins get passed onto our offspring in utero. We didn’t know this until relatively recently, but we do have the capacity to remove these toxins and choose not to put any more toxins from food into our bodies. If you cannot afford to eat organic, then consider fresh spray free produce.
Some research has found a link with maternal Vitamin D deficiency and autism. We can’t change the past, but we can make sure that you and your children have adequate levels of Vitamin D in your system, because it is an important vitamin needed to protect us from many conditions.
Statistics show that one in four people are deficient in Vitamin D and more than 90% are classified as having suboptimal levels of Vitamin D.
Too many people these days have low Vitamin D, possibly because of the fear of getting skin cancer from sun exposure. You can get your Vitamin D levels checked via a blood test with your doctor. For more about Vitamin D, see my article The Benefits of Sunlight.
A lot of parents have fussy eaters who simply won’t eat healthy foods. I have found in clinic that these kids commonly have very low levels of zinc, especially in ratio to their copper levels.
But just looking at the blood zinc and copper levels is not enough, as they may both appear to be in the ‘reference (normal) zone’. It’s more about the ratios and whether the Caeruloplasmin levels (this is a protein that safely binds to copper) are sufficient to protect the body from the harmful effects of high copper.
Copper and zinc antagonise (compete) with each other so if one is too high then the other will be lower and vice versa.
Copper is a much-needed mineral but if too high and not bound to Caeruloplasmin, then it can bring on strong behavioural issues, including anger and rage, or go the other way and cause depression in some.
Calcium and magnesium also antagonise (compete) with each other so if one is too high then the other will be lower and vice versa. I found when testing with hair analysis that people who consume high amounts of dairy products (especially if they don’t eat greens which are high in magnesium) often have low levels of magnesium.
As magnesium is the relaxer/calmer of the two minerals, you will have more agitation with low magnesium and potentially even higher aggravation with higher calcium.
Another example is that if selenium is low then often mercury can’t be excreted which will build up in the body and brain.
It is important to have all of your minerals in balance. Certain moods, behaviours, or symptoms can be our body’s way of telling us that there’s an imbalance of minerals. It’s worth listening to what the body is telling us.
You may need the help of a trained health professional if you are unsure about you or your child’s mineral levels. Remember it’s not just about the reference levels, but also the ratios between the minerals.
As previously mentioned, diet can have a profound impact on modifying autism behaviour. While a diet for ASD is not considered a cure, there have been fantastic outcomes with dietary modifications.
I have found foods that support the body to help it do its natural job of healing are free of gluten, dairy, additives, processed foods and very limited in grains (mostly seeds rather than grains). Gluten is probably the biggest culprit.
A great place to start is with a gluten, dairy and additives free diet and then see if there are improvements in behaviour or symptoms.
You can then work from there if you feel more is needed. For example, you may include foods low in salycilates, amines or glutamates and particularly low in sugar if you feel that hyperactivity remains, and as mentioned earlier, the Ketogenic Diet.
Important: Before you make dietary changes, I recommend you see a qualified, experienced health practitioner. Also do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your health care professional, who may even prescribe extra supplementation.
During the early stages of a new diet, it’s common for symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because the body is detoxifying. If unsure about a symptom, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client names and identifying information changed
Samantha was born by C-section after a long, difficult labour turned a bit nasty. Her mum, Casey really wanted a natural birth as she felt this would be the best start for Samantha, but this was not an option due to complications.
To make matters worse, little Samantha had trouble sucking and had to go onto the bottle after only a few days. Samantha seemed to thrive well and that appeared to be the end of the story, until she was about 2yrs old and started to behave ‘differently’.
Casey said it was after Samantha had a vaccine injection, but it’s hard to say what may have happened, except that her little girl was just ‘different’. Doctors didn’t know what was going on and mum Casey was passed off as being a ‘worrier’. By the time Samantha was four she was rude, belligerent, cried frequently, held her tummy a lot and frequently fought with her brother.
Samantha started pre-school and the child-carer suggested to test her for autism because her behaviour was uncontrollable most of the time with very little engagement with other children, except to hit them.
When Casey brought Samantha to my clinic, no tests had been done at that stage. I observed Samantha who seemed to be in pain, although this had not been mentioned by either mum or Sam. I asked Samantha where it hurt and she looked at me blankly as if she didn’t know what that meant. Casey said that Sam never complained about pain, but maybe she didn’t know what it was and just used her actions to express herself. Even though Samantha was four she didn’t talk much, which worried Casey.
We ran some tests including a comprehensive digestive stool analysis to look at her good and bad bacteria levels. We also looked at her mineral and metal levels.
The results were quite mind blowing for such a small person. It appeared that Samantha had developed celiac disease, even though there was no family history. Her gut was very inflamed which meant she wouldn’t have been absorbing any nutrients. Her bacteria levels showed high bad bacteria and hardly any good bacteria. Her heavy metal screen showed high copper and very low zinc, magnesium, potassium and calcium.
Her poor little body simply couldn’t absorb any good minerals from her diet.
The first thing to address was diet and Samantha was taken off all gluten foods and all foods with any possible cross-reactivity. She was fed lots of foods rich in vital minerals to support her body and to help to heal her ‘leaky gut’. We couldn’t get her to take any supplements, although we did manage to sneak some probiotic powders into her coconut milk which she loved. Generally, she seemed happy to comply with the diet (although some creative bartering was needed for full compliance).
Six weeks later she was a new girl. Her behaviour was significantly better, she was more settled, listened to those around her and expressed herself much more. She held her attention on me when we spoke and when I asked her about her tummy pains, and pointed to her tummy at the same time, she smiled and shook her head.
Samantha did need speech pathology support, but I saw her a few years later. She had grown up so well and was happy to see me and give me a picture she drew as a present. You wouldn’t know she was the same little girl that I first met and she certainly didn’t have any sign of autism at all
Client names and identifying information changed
Tim was a 21-year-old adult with autism and serious behavioural issues, but his mental ability was that of a child.
Tim had flu that didn’t clear, even after his doctor prescribed antibiotics that did not get rid of the infection. After weeks of being sick, his mum Jan brought Tim to me.
On the client questionnaire, Jan mentioned Tim’s infection and referred to his mental disabilities and behavioural issues, which she brushed off in clinic as this was ‘just how things were’ for Tim. Yet his illness amplified his customary ‘normal’ intolerable behaviour, to being quite outrageous.
The saving grace for me was that Tim had been somewhat sedated so he didn’t create havoc at the clinic, which meant I could run tests while he was reasonably calm.
Tim’s blood indicated signs of allergy, yet Jan said no allergies or food challenges had ever been investigated or trialled.
First, we looked at his infection and I knew some herbs, probiotics and vitamins/minerals would sort that out quickly (which they did). At the same time, to help Tim’s immune system to get stronger faster, I recommended going off gluten, dairy and additives along with any processed foods, junk foods and most importantly sugar.
Jan looked terrified and told me that Tim would only eat ‘crap foods’, so I appealed to Tim directly. I caught him in a good moment of compliance, as he agreed to change his diet for me. He was a young man of honour, so we shook on our agreement and off they went.
Three weeks later, they returned with beaming smiles as the infection had cleared up and Tim’s behaviour was vastly improved and he was gentler. He still had other disabilities, but Jan said he was no longer a ‘behavioural nightmare’.
I don’t know precisely which of the food changes made the difference, but the family was so happy with his improved behaviour (and weren’t willing to go back to the old Tim) that they decided to change their diet and consequently, they all felt much better.
Three months later, I received an email and photo to let me know that Tim had improved so much that he was able to work at a special needs centre and was already in charge of his area. He was proud of himself and the family were delighted that he wasn’t beating up his younger siblings and smashing down the house.