Folks in the celiac and autism communities have something in common…the gluten free diet.  I remember a few years ago talking with a friend who had an autistic son. She found when he was gluten free, his behavior was more under control.  She was not alone.

A study published this week in the January issue of Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics  and reported by WebMD/HealthDay News says nearly 40% of preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities are the recipients of complementary or alternative therapy, like the gluten free diet.

The study looked at 453 children 2-5 years old who had ASD and another 125 with developmental disabilities.  Nearly all were receiving traditional therapies like physical and behavioral treatments and other social services, the WebMD article says.

Yet 39% of children with ASD and 30% of kids with developmental disabilities were also getting alternative therapies according to the study.

According to WebMD, the most common complementary or alternative treatments  for ASD were dietary supplements and special diets. “Nearly 1 in 4 parents reported turning to specialized nutritional products (mutivitamins and gummies weren’t counted).  And almost one in five in the study was on a gluten free, casein free diet [GF/CF], which cuts out the proteins in wheat and milk.”  Researchers considered these to be relatively safe alternatives.

On the other side, about 9 percent of parents used “potentially unsafe” therapies, the WebMD Article says.  These include chelation (a treatment to remove metals from the body) and vitamin B-12 injections.

Is the Gluten Free Diet right for People with Autism?

It is a tough question and at this time, the answer may not be so black and white.

In 2009, the article Gluten-Free and Casein-Free diets in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders; a systematic review, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, did not support the use of a GF/CF diet to treat autism.

Another study published in Clinical Therapy and also by the National Institutes for Health from May 2013, suggests, “…there is insufficient evidence to support instituting a gluten-free diet as a treatment for autism. There may be a subgroup of patients who might benefit from a gluten-free diet, but the symptom or testing profile of these candidates remains unclear.”

During the International Celiac Disease Symposium last fall, Dr. Anna Sarpone, a researcher on intestinal permeability at the Second University of Naples, Department of Experimental Medicine told the group, the gluten free diet may work for some. “Some children affected by ASD have increased gut permeability that is corrected by a GF/CF diet,” Dr. Sarpone said in September of 2013.

I know there are people who swear by the GF/CF diet for their children with ASD. In fact, the main study in this article does not judge whether this diet should or should not be used (in fact it deemed it “relatively safe”), but rather, it spent time looking to see what is happening in the community.

The study did conclude that “further research should address how health care providers can support families in making decisions about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use.”  Which means, in my opinion, that doctors will need to get on board with some of these therapies if they are going to help families make smart decisions about them.

Have you had luck or not had luck using alternative therapies like the gluten free diet to help treat ASD?  Please comment below.

*Disclaimer, I am not a doctor, nor do I have a child with ASD.  My child has celiac disease.  Please consult your healthcare professional on this topic if you have questions.

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