Considered an alternative therapy for reducing autism symptoms, parents of autistic children sometimes use the gluten- and casein-free diet. Their hope is to help alleviate a child’s digestive problems and reduce the ritualistic and repetitive behaviors common to autism. The Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center points out that every autistic child is different. Therefore, treatments or interventions that benefit one child might not be beneficial to another child with autism.
Gluten is a protein in wheat and casein is a protein in dairy foods like milk and cheese. When children aren’t able to digest these proteins, opioids build up in the body depressing the nervous system. Autism-help.org suggests that continued exposure to these undigested proteins may have harmful effects on a child's developing brain which in turn affects behavior. Opioids that attach to receptors in the gastrointestinal tract and brain or along the spinal cord can increase a child's tolerance for pain and cause symptoms such as a lack of concentration and repetitive behaviors. The purpose of a restrictive diet is to improve these and other autism symptoms.
Some parents report that a gluten- and casein-free diet works to improve their children’s autism symptoms, according to the Autism-help.org website. Increased eye contact and attention span, and a decrease in stimming behaviors and temper tantrums are some of the changes parents have noted after making these dietary changes. There is no scientific-based evidence to support these observations to date. Research continues on the effects of dietary interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders.
Psychiatrist Dr. Emily Deans for Psychology Today explains how gluten- and casein-free diets might help reduce autism symptoms. Partially digested fragments of gluten and casein proteins that act as opiates pass through the cells lining the intestinal wall and travel on to the brain where they can affect behavior. A child with a leaky gut has an intestinal wall that is more permeable, allowing these undigested proteins to enter the bloodstream. GI symptoms and leaky gut are medical conditions often comorbid to autism. Opioids play a role in controlling mood, enhancing immune response, and suppressing pain and other emotional responses.
Although the gluten- and casein-free diet hasn’t been proven as an effective treatment for autism symptoms, doctors sometimes suggest that parents use the diet to see if it leads to improvements in their child’s behavior. Autism-help.org cautions that any restrictive diet should be used only in addition to approved behavioral and developmental interventions and under the supervision of a qualified health care professional. Pediatric gastroenterologist Kent Williams of Autism Speaks ATN center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, advises talking to a nutritionist or registered dietitian before using the diet. This will assure that your child gets all the nutritional requirements for normal growth and development. Williams notes that improvements you notice may be due to other dietary changes that are part of a gluten- and casein-free diet.