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October 06, 2015

Certain diets found ineffective for children with autism

Gluten-free, casein-free diets have become popular complementary treatments for children with autism spectrum disorder, but a Medical Center study found that eliminating foods containing gluten or casein has no effect on a child’s behavior, sleep, or bowel patterns.

Results of the study, which was the most tightly controlled research on dietary intervention and autism to date, were published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The study, which followed a group of children between the ages of two-and-a-half and five-and-a-half over the course of 30 weeks, strictly implemented the gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet with each child. The foods were then reintroduced as double-blind placebo-controlled challenges, while the children’s attention, activity, sleep patterns, and bowel movements were recorded. No significant changes were found when the children were given snack foods with gluten, casein, a combination of both, or a placebo.

Researchers also ensured that the children were receiving the same level of other behavioral interventions and other treatments, so that any observed changes could be safely attributed to diet. Such controls were not in place in previous diet studies.

“These diets have been very popular for many years as potential treatments for autism spectrum disorder, but we have found no evidence that they are effective,” says Susan Hyman, chief of the Division of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and the study’s lead author. “We also have concerns that families who try these diets may do so without the support of a dietician. A GFCF diet can meet a child’s nutritional needs, but families may benefit from professional advice regarding provision of adequate calcium and vitamin D, for example.”

Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley. Casein is contained in milk. Hyman and her colleagues, including Tristram Smith, professor of neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics, conducted the study to provide an evidence base for families who wanted to know more about the potential effect of dietary intervention.

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