Dietary approaches to autism

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This month has seen a flurry of jabs and jibes aimed at Dr Andrew Wakefield – the lead author of the study published in 1998 that first suggested a link between MMR vaccination and autism. An alleged conflict of interest has instigated a call for Dr Wakefield’s work to be disregarded, on the back of which the Government and medical establishment have given renewed reassurances about the safety of MMR. Yet, some doctors and scientists continue to claim that the epidemiological studies that appear to put MMR in the clear do not rule out the possibility that the vaccine may lead to autism in a small subset of the population. It appears that a full six years after Dr Wakefield’s original paper, the definitive research that would provide immunity from doubts over MMR’s safety remains to be done. Until it is, I suspect the scepticism about MMR vaccination coming from some quarters will continue to needle politicians and doctors alike.

To my mind, it is also unfortunate that the cries for Dr Wakefield’s head seem to have drowned out the cries coming from parents desperate to get help for their autistic children. Many such parents face a daily struggle with a child who is withdrawn and will usually find communicating with others painfully difficult. To outsiders, children with autism often appear to dwell in an isolated world, and one that is largely their own. Whatever its cause, there is little doubt that autism has the potential to have quite devastating effects on the lives of affected individuals and those around them.

While we may be in the dark about the precise underlying nature of autism, the endeavours of nutritional researchers has shed some light on potentially effective treatments for this condition. Evidence suggests that autistic children may lack the ability to properly digest dietary proteins such as gluten (found in wheat, oats, rye and barley) and casein (found in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt). Once absorbed into the body, these partially digested proteins (known as peptides) have the ability to exert effects on the brain similar to opiate drugs such as morphine. There is mounting evidence that the traits of autism may be the result of brain chemistry disruption due to these so-called ‘opioid-like

Importantly, studies and reports published in the scientific literature show that a diet free from gluten and casein can be effective in reducing autistic behaviour and improving social and communication skills. Parents keen to try this dietary approach may include naturally gluten-free starches such as potato, corn and rice in their children’s diets. Specialist gluten-free foods (now generally available in many supermarkets and health food stores) are another option. As a casein-free diet will tend to be low on calcium, it is important that children get plenty of this mineral through non-dairy sources such as nuts, seeds, green leafy
vegetables, calcium-fortified rice milk, sardines and tinned salmon.

Sardines and salmon, along with trout and mackerel, will also help provide children with the so-called omega-3 fats known to play a pivotal role in regularising brain function. While I am not aware of any studies that have tried omega-3 fats in autism, research exists which has found autistic children tend to be deficient in these crucially important fats. In practice, increased intake of omega-3 fats, and the removal of specific foods from the diet, can be a real shot in the arm for autistic children and their families.

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