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Gluten-free/casein-free diets for autism

Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that affect children by disrupting their ability to communicate and interact socially. To reduce a child's symptoms of autism, some parents try alternative treatments such as specialised diets. Some parents report improvement in autism symptoms using the gluten-free/casein-free diet.

However, little research has been done, though, on the gluten-free/casein-free diet for autism. Consequently, many parents wonder whether this diet really does, in fact, make a difference in the symptoms of children with autism. The NHS advises that there is little or no evidence that special diets such as the gluten-free diet is effective in managing the symptoms of autism.

What is a gluten-free/casein-free diet for autism?

A gluten-free/casein-free diet is also known as the GFCF diet. It is one of several alternative treatments for children with autism. When following this strict elimination diet, all foods containing gluten and casein are removed from the child's daily food intake.

Some parents of children with autism believe their children are allergic or sensitive to the components found in these foods. Some seek allergy testing for confirmation. Yet even when no allergy is confirmed, many parents of autistic children still choose to offer the GFCF diet. Among the benefits they report are changes in speech and behaviour.

How does a gluten-free/casein-free diet for autism work?

The gluten-free/casein-free diet is based on the theory that children with autism may have an allergy or high sensitivity to certain foods. In particular, the theory targets foods that contain gluten and casein. Children with autism, according to the theory, process peptides and proteins in foods containing gluten and casein differently than other people do. Hypothetically, this difference in processing may lead to autism symptoms. Some believe that the brain treats these proteins like false opiate-type chemicals. The reaction to these chemicals, they say, leads a child to act in a certain way.

Based on this theory, diets free of gluten and casein are given to children with autism. The intent is to reduce symptoms and improve social and cognitive behaviours and speech.

There may be some scientific merit to the reasoning behind a gluten-free/casein-free diet. Researchers have found abnormal levels of peptides in bodily fluids of some people who have symptoms of autism. Still, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) says the effectiveness of a GFCF diet for autism has not been scientifically substantiated in randomised clinical trials. In fact, a review of recent and past studies concluded there is a lack of scientific evidence to say whether this diet can be helpful or not. In its guidance for the management of symptoms of autism in adults NICE advises against using this diet.

Unfortunately, eliminating all sources of gluten and casein is so hard that conducting randomised clinical trials in children may prove to be very difficult.

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