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Survey: Gluten-Free Diet May Improve Symptoms, Behavior Among Autistic Children

(dave pullig/Flickr)

For parents of children with autism, the new findings — that a gluten-free, casein-free diet may help ease kids’ troubling GI symptoms and improve behavior — are nothing new.

Still, the report from Penn State backs what so many of these parents say they’ve experienced: Children appear to get some relief when following a strict diet that eliminates these ubiquitous ingredients (gluten is in most bread and grain products, and casein is found in dairy products).

The study is a survey, which, of course has its limitations. But for parents of children on the autism spectrum, the news suggests that painful physical symptoms associated with the condition might be alleviated through diet.

From the press release:

“Research has shown that children with ASD commonly have GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms,” said Christine Pennesi, medical student at Penn State College of Medicine. “Notably, a greater proportion of our study population reported GI and allergy symptoms than what is seen in the general pediatric population. Some experts have suggested that gluten- and casein-derived peptides cause an immune response in children with ASD, and others have proposed that the peptides could trigger GI symptoms and behavioral problems.”

The team — which included Laura Cousino Klein, associate professor of biobehavioral health and human development and family studies — asked 387 parents or primary caregivers of children with ASD to complete a 90-item online survey about their children’s GI symptoms, food allergy diagnoses, and suspected food sensitivities, as well as their children’s degree of adherence to a gluten-free, casein-free diet. The team’s results appeared online this month in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience.

Pennesi and Klein and their team found that a gluten-free, casein-free diet was more effective in improving ASD behaviors, physiological symptoms and social behaviors for those children with GI symptoms and with allergy symptoms compared to those without these symptoms. Specifically, parents noted improved GI symptoms in their children as well as increases in their children’s social behaviors, such as language production, eye contact, engagement, attention span, requesting behavior and social responsiveness, when they strictly followed a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Continue reading