Gluten-Free Diets May Improve Autism Behaviors, Survey Says

Penn State researchers examined data on the effectiveness of gluten- and casein-free diets on kids with autism spectrum disorders.

It’s fascinating to read about all the different ways researchers and doctors are approaching the complex questions surrounding autism spectrum disorders. We’ve seen everything from brain scans to birth-weight analyses to hormone inhalers. Even finger length has been tossed around as a possible marker for autism.

Now researchers at Penn State have homed in on a possible dietary connection to gluten and casein, both proteins found in food. Knowing that ASD kids often have GI symptoms—stomach pain, diarrhea—they wanted to find out if intolerances to certain foods might be exacerbating autism behaviors. So they asked nearly 400 parents of ASD kids with GI issues to fill out a questionnaire about their children’s diets, suspected food intolerances, and diagnosed food allergies. They also asked if—and to what degree—their kids adhere to casein- or gluten-free diets.

They found that among kids with GI issues, removing gluten and casein not only ameliorated the GI problems, it also correlated to a marked improvement in ASD behaviors, like language production, eye contact and attention span. And the longer the kids were on such diets, the more improvements parents observed. So does that mean there’s more involved with autism than just differences in the brain?

“There are strong connections between the immune system and the brain, which are mediated through multiple physiological symptoms,” said researcher Laura Cousino Klein in a press release. “A majority of the pain receptors in the body are located in the gut, so by adhering to a gluten-free, casein-free diet, you’re reducing inflammation and discomfort that may alter brain processing, making the body more receptive to ASD therapies.”

Gluten, found in everything from bread to soy sauce, is already a well-known dietary offender. But casein has less of a rap sheet, even though it makes up a majority of the protein in cow’s milk and is often found in energy bars and other packaged foods as an additive. Both gluten and casein can cause immune-system responses which, in ASD patients, could make ASD behaviors worse.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the findings here were culled from a survey, not a scientific experiment with controls and test subjects. The data was gleaned from the self-reported responses of parents—which more or less means it’s anecdotal evidence.

Not exactly something to hang your hat on, but certainly a potential link worth exploring.