In Defense of the "Autism Diet"


By Holly Bortfeld | TACA

The GFCFSF diet, known as the “Autism Diet” has been around for many years and has helped many people with ASD improve their lives, health and functioning. The following are my reasons to defend the diet.

The diet has proof to back it up - Research by Dr. Harumi Jyonouchi shows that 91% of people with ASD who were put on a strict GFCFSF diet improved. Jyonouchi’s papers say that ASD children have an aberrant immune response to the dietary proteins found in gluten, casein and soy. This peer-reviewed research merely backs up what parents have been saying for more than 10 years. Countless parents report that the diet is dramatically beneficial for their child. The most common comment we hear from parents is that their child “came out of the fog” when we started the diet. Many parents report that their children began to talk or increased their speech with the diet as well. Although this is anecdotal evidence, the preponderance of is it massive and consistent, and deserves a trial by families.

While we would like to have more double-blind studies to back up the diet, the truth is that it’s a very hard thing to study and make sure compliance was 100% in both groups without putting each in a controlled environment. Most parents would not allow this. The few recent studies that have been done were designed to fail as they didn’t run for the full 4 month trial period (most just a mere few weeks), although parents report that 4 months is the turning point. Additionally, those trials still allowed soy and unlimited high-sugar foods.

Diet improves health – ASD children usually self-limit their diet to a handful of things – usually all gluten and casein, and many times light-colored foods only. The typical ASD child can be down to a menu of chicken nuggets, French fries or chips, bananas, milk and yogurt. Parents report that their children “refuse all other foods” leading to poor nutrition. The sensory defensiveness that many ASD kids exhibit is vastly heightened before the diet and texture becomes a roadblock to healthy eating as well. Once they are on the diet however, they expand their food choices to include more healthy choices, thus improving their nutrition.

Diet improves the symptoms of autism – Common problems in ASD such as sleep issues, tantrums, challenging behaviors including self-injury and safety awareness are commonly reduced when the diet is implemented. Before the diet, my son like most ASD children rarely slept through the night. A child, not to mention parents, functioning on 2-3 hours of sleep chronically, sets them up for a cornucopia of dangers. Sleep deprivation is linked to immune system problems and increased behavioral issues. For parents this can mean car accidents, missed work and increased illness, all causing a cyclical problem in the home for everyone. Most parents report a reduction in behaviors, especially self-injury, elopement, dangerous climbing, recurrent ear infections, rashes and other medical conditions once their children are on the diet. According to the Autism Research Institute’s Parent Ratings of Biomedical Interventions, diet is consistently in the top interventions for efficacy.

Diet enhances therapies – Before the diet my son had a 1:1 in-home 40-hour-a-week program. The problem was that he didn’t seem to know they were there. Once we implemented the diet, it was as if he woke up and said “Oh, you want me to do this? Sure, why didn’t you say so?”. Once he was fully on the diet, he was finally able to attend to the therapists at both his in-home program and his in-clinic OT and speech therapists. Until that happened, I felt like we were wasting our money on the therapies. Our behavioralist, who had been working with ASD kids for 20 years at that point had set out a “realistic” time table the average child at my son’s functioning level would take to accomplish the goals we set for him. Once the diet was on board, however, my son flew through the goals and we were rewriting new ones monthly instead of semi-annually, which is what all of the professionals normally did. After a few years of witnessing children who were on the diet for themselves, all of the autism specialists we visited no longer accepted patients who weren’t on the diet. Their reasoning was that if they only had a limited amount of time to see children, they would rather spend 2 years with a child who will progress 4 years worth of development, than a child who will progress 4 months worth of development in the same time period.

Diet can negate the need for psychotropic medications – We have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of parents over the last decade tell the same story: “the doctor/school/therapist suggested medication to control the behaviors, but we opted for diet and they stopped suggesting medication since my son has responded so well to a simple change of food!”. While this is anecdotal, it is a proven issue when it comes to gluten-induced seizures. I have had many doctors and parents tell me about children who had seizures and the removal of gluten stopped them, thus making that child’s seizure medication unnecessary.

Maybe the question we should be asking when it comes to diet and autism is “Why not?”

The most common reason I hear against the diet is because they want their kids to eat the same foods as their peers sitting next to them in the school cafeteria. The problem with that is that school food is typically poor quality, low nutrition, high fat, sugar- and corn-syrup filled junk food that plays a part in our national obesity epidemic. As parents, I would hope that we would strive for better, not just the same substandard food the public schools serve.

Another myth worth debunking is that the diet is too expensive. The diet is only as expensive as you make it. Any diet, even the traditional American wheat and milk-based diet, is expensive if you buy a lot of pre-made foods. TACA has a great article on doing the diet on a budget and our “GFCFSF Diet on Food Stamps” article will be out soon.


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