On May 2, 2010, research by the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) was presented in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS). It was estimated that about 17 percent of children with autism are on special diets. About half of these are on diets free of gluten and casein (milk protein). Special diets were most commonly used for children who had gastrointestinal issues.
A growing number of children with autism receive treatment by complementary therapies. Diet is an integral part of many such therapies. Since so many children are receiving complementary therapy treatments, Daniel Coury, MD, recommended that doctors bear this in mind when dealing with patients with autism. Coury is medical director of the ATN and a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Ohio State University.
The diets are implemented with the hopes of easing gastrointestinal issues that would cause or contribute to leaky gut syndrome. In that event, avoiding gluten and casein could change opioid activity in the brain which affects the capacity for social bonding. It may also be possible that a leaky gut has kicked off a negative response from the immune system.
Scientific research has not uncovered solid data linking diet to autism as yet. But some investigators are open to the possibility, reasoning that since so little is known about the causes of autism, all avenues should be considered.
According to an article published on May 20, 2010, on whyy.org, autism researchers met in Philadelphia at the International Meeting for Autism Research to discuss causes of autism, as well as prevention and possible treatments. Avoiding gluten and dairy protein in the diet has been embraced by many parents of children with autism.
Susan Hyman, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said that while many parents report a positive experience with this type of diet, research has not yielded scientific data to support this. Nevertheless Hyman believed that nutrition should receive further study.
Her co-researcher, Patricia Stewart, PhD, RD, suggested that bigger, more inclusive studies are needed because subpopulations on the autism spectrum, such as those with gastrointestinal issues, might benefit from this. Stewart is a senior instructor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
According to David Mandell, ScD, parents' attempts to search out nutritional answers have been ignored by the scientific community. He said that it's possible that previous studies were not long-term enough to yield results. Mandell is associate director of the Center for Autism Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia.
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