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Does gluten affect children with autism?


There has been evidence supporting the correlation between children with autism and their food sensitivity to gluten and casein. An elimination diet is recommended. The first step to this diet is to avoid foods with gluten (a protein found in some grains).  Foods and drinks containing wheat, barley, rye, oats, or anything made from these grains are eliminated from the diet.  Often in combination with the gluten-free diet is the elimination of milk protein (casein). The casein-free diet calls for the elimination of milk protein.  Proponents of the gluten-free diet suggest that many children with autism have compromised gastrointestinal function, including intestinal leakage, making it difficult for them to digest certain grains properly.  There are many theories behind the elimination diet.  The most studied theory is that in many children with autism eating gluten leads to high levels of protein by-products called gluteomorphines.  These by-products have the same affect on the brain as many drugs do, causing behavioral upset. In these children, gluteomorphines could reduce their desire for social interaction, interfere with neurotransmissions and increase confusion.  If gluten is eliminated from the diet, the idea is that this will reduce the level of gluteomorphines and therefore improve behavior.

The science to support this theory is relatively new and research is still underway.  In support of this theory, recent evidence of a genetic mutation common among children with autism has been traced to a gene involved in gastrointestinal function.  One well-controlled study focused on children with autism who had abnormally high protein by-products in their urine, proving they were more sensitive to casein and gluten.  One group of these children was fed a strict casein- and gluten-free diet for 12 months, while the other group remained on their regular diet.  The group on the elimination diet had significantly fewer autistic symptoms than the other children not fed this diet.

The research continues and proves to be promising.  Some evidence shows that a gluten-free diet combined with a casein-free diet, can help improve the behavior of some children with autism.  Since parents know their children best, they will be able to tell if their children are responding favorably to the elimination diet.

Choosing and adjusting to a gluten-free diet can be a challenge.  Parents must become aware of food ingredients by becoming experts at reading labels. Products containing wheat, barley, rye or oats in any form should not be purchased.  Foods containing modified food starch contain gluten, but modified corn starch does not.  Maintaining proper nutrition levels can also be a challenge, as many gluten-free dieters find it difficult to find proper levels of minerals within their limited food selections.  Often, outside supplements must be incorporated into the diet to ensure optimal levels.

Maintaining a gluten-free diet can be hard to do at first because gluten is present in many prepared foods.  This diet can be expensive and difficult to follow.  But as this diet becomes more common, the transition becomes easier.  Gluten-free versions of many favorite foods such as pastas, breads and cookies are becoming more readily available. Moreover, changing the diet to more vegetables, other protein sources and whole foods are big steps towards overall healthy living.


The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network provides many resources to help children live with a gluten-free diet: http://www.foodallergy.org/.

The Kid-Friendly ADHD and Autism Cookbook: The Ultimate Guide to the Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet by P. Compart and D. Laake. 2006. Fair Winds Press.


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Posted on January 24,2011
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