I would like to start the GF/CF diet with my child who has autism. Where do I begin?
As parents of children with autism we often try everything we can to help. In my family, moving my oldest child Marc into a gluten free / dairy free diet helped enormously with his sleep, getting rid of gastrointestinal comfort and elimination issues, and improved his mood.
Although moving to a gluten free/casein (or dairy) free diet ( GF/CF) may not be the answer to all of your child’s challenges, it can help in a variety of ways in about 20% of children with ASD. The good news is you’ll know in about 6 weeks of starting the diet if it is having a positive affect on your child.
What is a Gluten-Free/Casein Free (GF/CF) diet?
The diet involves removing all food items that contain gluten or dairy. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye, as well as spelt, so any products made from these items will have gluten in them. As an aside, most grains including oats can be cross contaminated with gluten items processed at the same factories. If your child is genuinely gluten intolerant (celiac), you will need to be very careful to get “gluten free” oats or other products such as baking powder that are specifically marked gluten free.
Casein is a protein found in milk. Dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, butter, and sour cream will have casein in them.
How can a gluten free/ dairy free diet help autism?
Well documented studies have shown that children with autism experience gastrointestinal (GI) upsets such as constipation, diarrhea and sensitivity to foods six-to-eight times more often than do children who are developing typically.
Aside from making someone painfully/physically uncomfortable, gut issues have been shown to deeply affect those with ASD. GI symptoms were found to be related to behavioral problems, including social withdrawal, irritability and repetitive behaviors. There are cases of children with ASD making significant progress once their GI issues were treated.
How do I transition my child with ASD onto a gluten free/dairy free diet?
Taking out easy go-to snacks and favourite foods can be a tough challenge for both parent and child. Some children have no problem switching up their diets, but others have food aversions, sensory issues, and behavioural challenges that can make it difficult.
- Make sure you have the support you need for the transition
- Introduce new foods during calm, stress free moments
- Give your child time to explore any new textures and tastes
- I have written a blog post with helpful tips on food aversions and eating challenges here.
Reading about the diet is a good place to start to understand what needs to be eliminated from the diet, the commitment involved, and how to implement and monitor the diet and its effects. Keeping a food diary during the transition can be very helpful as well to track changes and/or reactions.
What foods should I use for a GF/CF diet
There is much more awareness around this diet these days, and many GF/CF products can be found at large grocery stores or online for reasonable prices. There are lots of alternatives for gluten.
- Try using bean-based recipes and baking with alternative flours such as quinoa, rice, or potato flour.
- The rice pasta that is available now is just as good as the flour based type and it is excellent in casseroles or salads.
- Avoid processed foods because many of these items contain both hidden gluten and dairy products and the ingredient list may not readily identify them as GF/CF. If it isn’t labeled as such, it more than likely isn’t.
- Almond milk, rice milk or coconut milk is widely available and nutritious – just be aware of added sugars in some brands.
- There are reasonable dairy-free cheese substitutes that melt. You can buy pre-made frozen gluten free/dairy free pizzas, or just buy blocks of their “cheese” and make your own.
- I find coconut yogurt and ice cream as delicious as the “real thing”, or you can make fruit ice cream with no dairy in it at all. Just blend frozen banana with berries and a little non dairy milk in your food processor or blender. You can add chia seeds or almond milk for a little added protein depending on your child’s tastes.
Gluten Free / Dairy Free Resources
Two books to start with are:
Autism: Exploring the Benefits of a Gluten-and Casein-Free Diet – A practical guide for families and professionals
Diet Intervention and Autism – Implementing the Gluten Free and Casein Free Diet for Autistic Children and Adults – A Practical Guide for Parents
Two websites to look at are:
GF/CF – gfcf.com
Gluten Free and More – https://www.glutenfreeandmore.com/
I wrote about my own experience putting my son on a GF/ CF diet here.
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Autism also manifests in struggles around food. Food aversions, preferences, and mealtime rituals are common signs of autism, especially in young children.
I have written on those topics as well and have a few books in our bookstore that address those topics – https://autismawarenesscentre.com/food-glorious-food-expanding-the-diet-of-individuals-with-asd/, https://autismawarenesscentre.com/feeding-challenges-helpful-hints-for-parents-of-children-with-autism/, https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shop/therapies/dietary-eating-concerns/autism-and-eating-disorders-in-teens-a-guide-for-parents-and-professionals/ https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shop/therapies/dietary-eating-concerns/food-refusal-avoidant-eating-children-including-autism-spectrum-conditions-practical-guide-parents-professionals/ https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shop/therapies/dietary-eating-concerns/supporting-autistic-people-with-eating-disorders-a-guide-to-adapting-treatment-and-supporting-recovery/
IS THERE A GROUP IN lASVEGAS TO HELP WITH AUTISIM AND RELATED ISSUES SUCH AS AUDITORY?
Shirley, you can contact FEAT Las Vegas – https://www.featsonv.org/services Here is a list of disability services in Nevada – http://dhhs.nv.gov/Programs/IDEA/ProjectASSIST/Local-Resources/ and another great list – https://parentsguidelv.com/magazine/1092/autism-related-resource-list-for-southern-nevada-families These resources should be able to get you started with finding what you need.
Hello, My name in Rene and my wife and I have noticed verbal delays of speech with our 2yr son so we signed up for speech therapy and in the process ADS has come up, what ever it my be I would like to be informed ,and proactive in every phase, will start diet asap
Rene, just keep in mind that the GF/CF diet does not always reduce symptoms unless there are intolerances to gluten and casein. My son has remained on this diet since he was a baby and is now 24 as it keeps him healthy and feeling well.
I love this website.really…now i have a community to help me with my querries.thank you
I am glad you found us. Please feel free to ask us questions when things arise.
my son who is 3yrs old now got diagnosed with autism. We are getting the ABA therapy and it has improved little bit with his communication skills, but he still get absorbed in any one kind of activity, if he try to stop he cries non stop, is there any kind of supplement that can help?, I also want to know if the gluten free and casein free diet help?
I am not sure how long you’ve been using ABA therapy, but you have to be patient in order to see improvement. Skill development tends to be slower and in smaller increments. The GF/CF diet is used when we see problematic symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, frequent bowel movements, skins rashes are other symptoms. If your son has a healthy diet and does not display other symptoms or problematic behavior, there is no need to try this diet. It is effective in about 20% of the ASD population but it is worth trying if you are seeing digestive issues with your son. Here is some further reading you can do – https://autismawarenesscentre.com/gluten-free-diet-decrease-autistic-behaviors/ , https://autismawarenesscentre.com/in-autism-the-importance-of-the-gut/, and https://autismawarenesscentre.com/my-experience-with-the-gfcf-diet/
Thank you for this post, most people are not believers. At 3 years and 6 months old my son would lay on the floor lining things up in his own world and non verbal. He also had sensory issues and would cover his ears and constantly melt down. I prayed to God and he gave me the answer. I put him on a healthy organic, paleo diet with supplements and he is now a happy, healthy, talkative 4 year old who is social, loving, plays with his sisters, and is typical. I say he is in remission from autism and not “recovered” because I feel if we took him off the paleo diet or supplements he would eventually regress. I’m not a doctor but this is what I did.
Organic Liquid Probiotics by MaryRuth’s: https://amzn.to/3cn8LOe
Dr. Rydland’s by Kidswellness Liquid Herbal Formulas (Candida Yeast): https://amzn.to/3esJ00Y
Barlean’s Omega Pals Fish Oil: https://amzn.to/3cqjxTX
BulkSupplements NAC (N-Acetyl L-Cysteine) Powder: https://amzn.to/2RKKWrH
Zarbee’s Naturals Children’s Sleep with Melatonin Supplement Chewable Tablet (Chewable NOT GUMMY as it can cause stomach pain): https://amzn.to/3cvfQMV
Thank you for sharing your story. Specialized diets don’t work for every child, but I always think they are worth a try. My son also takes probiotics and krill oil, among other supplements, daily. He has other health issues that we need to support above and beyond his autism.
Hi! I want to start my son on a gluten free and casein free diet. But I don’t know what to give him as his a very picky eater. Whatever he likes contains gluten and casein.
Lovelina, here is a link for some helpful tips on feeding challenges – https://autismawarenesscentre.com/feeding-challenges-helpful-hints-for-parents-of-children-with-autism/ . As stated in the article, here is a website that lists all things that are GF/CF free – http://gfcf.com/ and https://www.glutenfreeandmore.com/ . I often take recipes that aren’t GF/CF and make them so. I use GF flour instead of flour, almond meal, almond milk instead of milk, coconut oil instead of butter. You can still enjoy many favorite foods with some alterations.
Thank you for the information, I have always wondered what is the benefit of gluten-dairy free diet for my adult son with autism. However, totally irrelevant, but very critical in our lives now, I’m searching for a guide to teach my adult son on “toilet hygiene” wiping properly. I’m in my sunset years and haven’t done the best job and teaching him skills for when I can no longer take care of him. I would so much appreciate any practical information I can get. He’s fully toilet trained, except for the last step that I mentioned above. My son is 42.
Sylvia, I have always had my adult son use Wet Wipes. They do the job much better than toilet paper. One other thing to consider is mobility and gross motor skills – can your son reach his hand around to wipe? Sometimes this can be the problem. He can go between his legs if that is easier. There are also some therapeutic tools available to make the job easier if your son struggles physically with wiping – https://freedomwand.com/blogs/press/differences-between-the-freedomwand-bottom-buddy-and-self-wipe .
You can also break the toileting tasks down with visuals (1. Sit on toilet 2. Poop 3. Wipe bottom 4. Stand up and flush 5. Wash hands
If you have always helped with wiping, he may not know this is a step he can do independently.
Let me know if you need more information.