Parents of children with autism have unique challenges. Children with autism often have restricted social interaction and will frequently focus on one item, while excluding all external distractions. This can be noticed as early as infancy. Social cues, such as voice tone and body language, which are developed as a child ages, will frequently be missed. Oftentimes the child has a difficult time gauging the emotions of others.
One of the most alarming behaviors for parents of children with autism is the frequent repetition of self-abusive behaviors such as biting, banging their head against the wall and behaviors such as twirling and self-rocking (stimming). Some children with autism may also have other conditions such as seizures, Tourette syndrome, ADHD, and other learning disabilities. While several medications are being used to treat the symptoms of autism, many parents are using specialized diets to treat the symptoms.
The gluten-free / casein-free diet, known also as the GFCF diet, is one of the alternative treatments being used by parents of children with autism. While the medical research behind this diet is in its infancy, parents who have used it have reported positive changes. The research that has been conducted is promising, but not yet conclusive.
Two proteins are removed in the GFCF diet: casein, found in milk and milk products and gluten which exist in wheat, rye, barley and certain oat products. The diet doesn't just include the obvious choices like bread and cheese, but also the processed foods that contain gluten and/or casein. The suspected reason for the improvements may be that autistic children are more likely to have allergies or be more sensitive to these foods, but even when no allergy is detected, children with autism still show behavioral improvements.
According to the theory, children with autism process gluten and casein differently than people not considered to be on the autism spectrum. The brain of a child with autism will treat the introduction of gluten and casein as a false-opiate, which will enhance many of the symptoms, especially the self-destructive ones. In order for the diet to be effective, it must be followed completely. One study conducted showed that a child who strays from the diet as rarely as once every six months will not improve as much as those who stick to the diet with 100% commitment.
The main problem with this diet is that gluten and casein are so prominent in foods, whether directly or indirectly, that the ability to do clinical trials has proven difficult. Those parents who have been able to stick to the diet do not need to wait for the medical science to catch up, they see the improvements in their children first hand. The length of time for improvement varies, but most children studied showed improvements to their social and cognitive behaviors, as well as speech functions, in eight to twelve months.
It is important to understand that the GFCF diet does not work on all children with autism. According to the Website AutismSpeaks.org, nearly half of autistic children suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms. Perhaps it is that gluten and casein proteins cause inflammation to GI tracts or perhaps there is a more direct correlation between gluten and casein in regards to behavior. Science is showing that children with autism that have food allergies and digestive problems are gaining the most out of the GFCF diet.
It is important to consult the child's physician before opting for a dietary change as these can sometimes have unexpected side effects.
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