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Autism and Nutrition

Autism or “Autism Spectrum Disorder” is a term used to describe a group of disorders that affect the brain. You might have heard that there are different diets and supplements that may help with the symptoms of autism. Read on to learn about the current research that is being done.

What is autism?

Autism is a disorder that affects the way a person’s brain works. It is the most common mental disorder affecting children. About 1 in 165 Canadian children has autism.

What are the symptoms of autism?

Common symptoms of autism may include:

  • Trouble communicating and interacting with people
  • Behaviour that is different than other people
  • Less interest in food or uncommon food preferences
  • Less interest in activities with others
  • Trouble with motor skills including picking up small objects, catching a ball and riding a bike

Autism affects each person differently and can range from mild to severe.

When is autism usually diagnosed?

Autism is usually diagnosed in early childhood when signs first start.

What is the treatment for autism?

There is no known cure for autism. Treatment is based on the individual. It may include helping individuals cope with their symptoms through education and skill development, self-help, socialization and play. 

What diets or nutrients are linked to helping the symptoms of autism? Do they work?

Children with autism may limit their food intake or have food preferences. They may also break down fat differently. As a result, autistic children are sometimes low in certain nutrients. Some of these nutrients have been studied to see if giving children supplements of these nutrients may help with autism symptoms. However, more research is needed. Before giving your child any of the following supplements, speak with your child’s physician or a Registered Dietitian first.

Vitamins and Minerals

Multivitamins: Some results have shown a multivitamin may help improve sleep and digestive problems in autistic children. Note that a multivitamin with iron may cause some digestive problems. Giving your child a multivitamin is not harmful and may be helpful, especially if your child is not eating a balanced diet.

Iron: Children with autism are often low in iron, usually because many are picky eaters. Ask your child's doctor to check iron levels regularely.  Do not give an iron supplement unless your child’s iron level has been confirmed as low by a health care provider. An iron supplement may help bring iron levels back to normal. Vitamin B6 and magnesium: Vitamin B6 and magnesium supplements have been linked to improving behaviour in autistic children. However, the research is not strong and more research is needed before these supplements are recommended for autistic children. 

Omega-3 Fats

Some research has shown that many children with autism have low levels of omega-3 fats. Omega-3 supplements may help with hyperactivity in autistic children. However, more research is needed before omega-3 supplements can be recommended for children with autism.

The Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet

The Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet is a diet free of gluten and casein. Gluten is the main protein in wheat and other grains such as rye, barley, triticale, kamut and spelt. Casein is the main protein in dairy products such as cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream. This diet may be recommended to help improve behaviour in autistic children. Some children with autism have a short term decrease in autistic behaviours when following this diet. However, the research is limited and more research is needed before this diet is recommended for autistic children.

Should I put my child on a special diet?

No. A special diet such as the Gluten-Free, Casein Diet is not recommended. It can be costly, hard to follow and limited in food variety. Autistic children with limited food preferences may be at higher risk for nutrient deficiencies if put on a special diet. 

I want to try a special diet. What else should I know? 

Before putting your child on a special diet:

Speak to your child’s doctor.

  • A doctor can check if your child is low in some nutrients due to limited food intake or food preferences. A restricted or special diet may put an autistic child at higher risk for nutrient deficiencies that could affect their growth.

Ask your doctor for a referral to a Registered Dietitian.

  • A Registered Dietitian can do a full nutrition assessment on your child and discuss the pros and cons of the diet. Working with a Registered Dietitian on-going is recommended to help lower the risk of nutrient deficiencies. Call EatRight Ontario at 1-877-510-510-2 if you need help to find a Registered Dietitian.

Look to Canada’s Food Guide.

  • Eating a variety of foods can help your child get the vitamins and minerals needed for growth and development.

Bottom line

More research is needed to support a link between autism symptoms and nutrition. If you are considering a supplement or a special diet, speak with your child’s doctor or a Registered Dietitian first. They can help you make the right choice and lower the risk of possible side effects or nutrient deficiencies.

Call EatRight Ontario at 1-877-510-510-2 or send us an email if you have questions about autism and nutrition.

You may also be interested in:

Autism Canada

It’s Your Health: Autism Spectrum Disorders

EatRight Ontario can answer your questions about healthy eating and send you handouts. Call 1-877-510-510-2 or send an email. Watch this video to learn about what to expect when you call EatRight Ontario.

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Last Update – September 22, 2016

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