To Be, Or Not To Be Gluten-Free?


Gluten, which is Latin for “glue”, is a protein composite found in wheat and related grains, including barley and rye. Recently is it becoming more and more common to hear of people going on gluten-free diets to lose weight, or due to a gluten intolerance; but did you know some people are using gluten-free diets as an alternative intervention method for children with Autism? This special diet may help improve digestion and reduce some characteristics of Autism, such as difficulty with communication and social skills.

How does it work?

Although this theory has yet to be proven true, some experts believe that often children with Autism have difficulty digesting gluten.  These undigested proteins turn into substances that act as opiates which may affect behavior and brain development.  Researchers believe that by eliminating gluten from children’s diets, parents may notice:

  • Reduced aggression
  • Reduced impulsivity (ex: calling out, yelling)
  • Reduced sensitivity to sensory properties (ex: refusal to eat crunchy textures)
  • Increased attention span

How do you start a gluten-free diet?

First, it is important to know what kinds of food contain gluten, and what foods are naturally gluten-free.  Children on gluten-free diets can eat fresh meats (unbreaded/battered), fruits, vegetables, rice, corn meal/starch, beans, soy, potato starch, and most milk products.  Children on gluten-free diets cannot eat wheat, wheat germ, semolina, oats, barley, rye, malt flavoring, and most gravies, soups, and sauces. Many products in the market are geared towards gluten-free diets.  The internet is a great resource to explore gluten-free recipes. Experts recommend a trial period of 3-months for children under the age of 3 and a 6-month trial period for children older than 3 years.  The diet should be introduced gradually, especially for younger children, as withdrawal symptoms may occur.

Are there any side-effects of going gluten-free?

There are some possible side-effects of eliminating gluten from your diet, including weight gain or weight loss, constipation, diarrhea, high cholesterol, and poor vitamin status.  Consult a physician or dietician for advice on nutritional supplements and to determine if going gluten-free is right for your family.

Going gluten-free is a big decision which affects the entire family, so it is important to weigh your options.  Remember that there is not enough evidence to support or refute that this is an effective intervention method for children with Autism, but there are parents who report improvements in their child’s behavior.  Even if your child does not have Autism, but exhibits sensory aversion, aggression, impulsivity, or a limited attention span, this may be an option to consider.

-Nicole C.


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