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Frequently Asked Questions
Over 70% of autistic children have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain. It can be difficult for children with autism and language delays to show their discomfort and communicate symptoms. They might act out or have problems sleeping instead.
To make things even more challenging, children with autism often have feeding problems such as selective eating (see A parent’s guide for picky and selective eaters). Children with a limited diet can experience issues such as constipation and intestinal microbiota (more on microbiota later in the article)!
The gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet is one of the more commonly implemented diets by parents. Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in wheat and related grains such as barley and rye as well as in many processed and prepackaged food products. Foods that contain gluten can also be used to alter the taste and texture of foods. Gluten-free diets are often combined with a casein-free diet. Casein is a protein found in dairy products.
This being said, for most children, gluten is completely harmless. Despite the wide-spread use of GFCF as an alternative diet in autistic children, research does not support it as an effective treatment of autistic related-symptoms.
Here are a few risks you need to consider:
- You can actually hide medical conditions before they are diagnosed. If you are concerned your child has a gluten intolerance, it is important to see your child’s doctor prior to making any dietary changes. Removing gluten from the diet before testing for celiac disease can alter the test results and make diagnosing more difficult.
- Your child might not be getting a complete diet. Healthcare professionals warn that because so many foods contain gluten and casein, restricting it can affect your child’s nutrition. Many children with autism also have severe picky-eating disorders and implementing further restriction on their diets can be harmful to their overall nutritional intake. See The autism parent’s guide to a complete diet.
- Trendy diets are expensive. Alternative diets can also put a dent in your wallet —for example, gluten-free products are found to be much more expensive (by almost 200%, yikes!).
- Food products that are gluten-free does not mean it is healthy. Almost 90% of gluten-free foods marketed for children are actually quite unhealthy because of their sugar content. This is especially important for children with autism who are already more likely to be overweight or obese.