Gluten Free Dairy Free Diet for chiAutism. Child girl drinking milk at the kitchen

Gluten Free / Dairy Free Diet for Autism : My Experience

Those of us who have children with autism normally try many things in our journey to help our kids. In the past 15 years, diet has been explored more and more with excellent outcomes for many children. Children with autism often experience symptoms like chronic diarrhea, headaches, stomach cramps, poor sleeping patterns, and irritable behavior. My son experienced all of these symptoms. After spending a year working with a gastro-intestinal specialist and finding no concrete answers, I finally turned to a dietician for help. She held the key to a better life for my son, Marc.

Start by keeping a food diary for your child

I started keeping a daily food diary recording everything Marc ate and what symptoms occurred. A pattern began to emerge of reoccurring symptoms after he eat anything that was a dairy, soy, citrus, or gluten product.  I had read a possible theory that the reason why foods containing gluten and casein, found in dairy products, are hard to digest for autistic children is because they are often functioning in an over-stimulated state. This over-stimulated state directs the blood flow out to the limbs for the “flight or fright” mode away from the digestive track making hard to digest foods like gluten and casein even more difficult to break down.  Even though this is a theory, it made sense to me because my son was tested for allergies and all of the foods that bothered him did not show as an allergy. Is it just simple food intolerance? Marc seemed to have too much in common with other autistic children to dismiss his eating difficulties with just a blanket statement like, “He has food intolerances”.

What to eat on a gluten free / dairy free diet?

Marc has had great success on his limited diet. The question most parents ask me is, “So what does he eat?” That was the scariest part of eliminating so many foods from his diet. My dietician helped a great deal in making the dietary switch and where to find these new foods.

Marc eats rice products in place of gluten products. Some of the rice products I use are rice pasta, rice bread, rice noodles, rice crackers, rice cakes, puffed rice cereal and I bake with rice flour. Corn products also agree with Marc so he is able to eat puffed corn cereal, corn itself, corn chips and corn pasta.

For the substitution of dairy products, I use rice milk. One must be careful about buying any type of processed food as it may contain milk. Some examples of foods that may contain milk but you might not think they do are soup mixes, batter-fried foods, margarine, baked goods, instant mashed potatoes, cakes and cookies. I tend to stay away from all processed foods unless I see a label that states “gluten and dairy free”. Read all labels carefully even if you know that food to be free of problem ingredients. Many food ingredients change with no warning to the consumer.

Where do you find all of these foods? Most large grocery store chains now have gluten free, dairy free or organic products. Health food stores will carry a variety of these products but the price tends to be higher than a larger grocery store chain. In my city, we have an allergy/organic bakery that makes rice flour based baked goods daily. Many of the rice products that I mentioned are also available in Asian supermarkets or in the ethnic aisle of your grocery store. Rarely in a larger center have I had any trouble finding any of these specialty products.

Limited diets can work well for children with autism

The gluten free / dairy free diet has really agreed with Marc. His weight is much better now and he gains at a good rate. When his blood work is done, he is not deficient in any nutrients. His diarrhea problem is a thing of the past. Marc sleeps ten hours a night whereas before the diet he was waking up crying five times a night and not wanting to be held because he was in pain. I also have a daughter with autism and put her on this diet when she was a year old as she was beginning to exhibit some of the same symptoms Marc had when he was her age. Our family has followed this diet successfully for 19 years now.

Has eliminating gluten and dairy from my children’s diet improved our family life? The answer is yes. In the last 15 years, specialized diets have become much more mainstream, and restaurants often have gluten free or dairy free options. Altering your child’s diet may not be the answer to the problems your child is experiencing, but it is a non-invasive way to try and improve the life of your child. They are also other dietary options other than gluten free or dairy free – check out the links in the Medical Links section of our website.

For further information on eating challenges, have a look at these 2 excellent books – Just Take A Bite and Improving Speech and Eating Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

For information on starting a GF/CF diet, read Autism: Exploring the Benefits of a Gluten-and Casein-Free Diet – A practical guide for families and professionals or Diet Intervention and Autism – Implementing the Gluten Free and Casein Free Diet for Autistic Children and Adults – A Practical Guide for Parents .

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  1. Rizia Martin says:

    Hi.. my son is 4 and a half and was diagnosed with Autism a year ago. I’ve just changed his diet but have decided to limit the gluten and dairy as much as I can as I feel that completely cutting it out won’t be a practical option for us (right now anyway). My question is, will limiting the gluten and dairy still have an effect on him? 
    Also, my son doesn’t have any digestive problems.. no constipation or dihorrea, no stomach cramps or bad moods.. so I’m wondering if the gluten and dairy even matter in his diet..? I’m going to keep at it anyway and see if I can see improvements in his speech and language (his main issue). Just wondering your thoughts on this.. 
    thanks 

    • Rizia, not every child with autism is intolerant to gluten and/or dairy. If you have not seen any adverse affects having gluten and dairy in his diet, you should be fine. That diet only works in about 20% of autism cases. Not overloading his system with gluten and dairy can be helpful (as it can for anyone). My husband has eliminated gluten from his diet and feels much better. Just keep an eye out for any symptoms such as a change in bowel movements, sleeping patterns, headaches or GI issues. If these signs emerge, you may want to cut out gluten and/or dairy until symptoms improve. When my daughter has dairy such as ice-cream, she breaks out in eczema around her eyes and ears. Everyone is different.

  2. Dacral Lee says:

    Hi Maureen,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. We do not have many concerns in relation to diet since my 5 year old son eats mostly anything that we cook in our home (yes, we try hard to stay away from processed food). He loves milk and fruit yogurt but would not come even close to cheeses or plain yogurt. He loves any home-cooked meat (pork, beef, poultry and fish). He would take any thing as a side dish: home-made fries, mashed potatoes, rice, but he refuses pasta of any sort. He loves simple corn-flakes and almost all fruits: apples, pears, cherries, grapes, bananas, peaches, apricots, but would stay away from melon or pineapple. He loves snacking on cookies and dry stuff like veggie sticks or pita chips. He does not seem to have abdominal cramps or other digestive problems, although most days he has more than one BM. He sleeps on average 9 hours (9:00 PM to 6:00 PM) sometimes more sometimes less, with infrequent wake-ups during the night and if so, he normally gets back to sleep without much fuss. He is in IBI 24 hours a week for 8 months now and will continue likely another 6-8 months. He runs, jumps and climbs on things ALL the time (unless Steve Harvey’s Family Feud is on). He is verbal but does not communicate effectively by words (instead he imitates a lot and started requesting things like certain foods or certain actions/plays, i.e. he would name what he wants by one word: apple, juice, bubbles, bye-bye, etc). Although we are trying hard we could not get him toilet trained by now. He also has 2-3 tantrum-like episodes a day of acting angry and screaming (lasting 30-60 seconds) especially when we deny him something that he wants (like when he’s had too much fruits we would not give him more). Did your kids have these kind of behaviors or similar? Did the CF and GF diet help them? I mean were you able to bring them towards a normal behavior (toilet training, communication, etc) with this special diet’s help? Thank you.

    • Dacral, both of my children showed signs of gluten and dairy intolerance. My daughter still has flare ups around her eyes if she eats dairy. As children get older, you can’t control everything in their lives (mine are 19 and 21). The GF/CF diet has helped both maintain the best health they can. Both can have a bit of gluten now and then, but just not on a regular basis. Your son is young to be toilet trained at 5 so don’t panic about that. People with autism do have developmental delays so you can’t go by age for skill acquisition.

      The diet is not a cure but can help with symptoms like discomfort, pain, headache etc.

      Autism looks differently as a person ages. What my kids looked like at 5 is completely different from 21. Your son will grown, mature, develop self-regulation skills, acquire more language etc. It all takes time and you can’t rush the process.

  3. ThomasWilson says:

    You’ll be stuck with rice, corn and millet for bread substitutes. So no toast, sandwiches, pastries, pasta, cookies, or pretty much anything else that tastes good. Just check the labels, most everything has to specify if it has wheat in it. Even soy sauce has wheat so while Asian foods are pretty good about being wheat free, you gotta watch out for that.

    Well that’s good then if you have an intolerance for it and especially if you have Celiac Disease. Hope you’re getting tested for that or will eventually.

    Some supermarkets sell special gluten free products like wheat free bread. It takes a while to get used to the taste of the stuff cause it’s a weird blend of all the other grains. You can ask stores if they carry anything like that. Otherwise get used to corn tortillas.

  4. LW says:

    I’d really like to hear more about your day-to-day functioning with the diet since you’ve stuck with it so long term. I know enough about it now to give it a try and we have, but we’re only in month-2 of the diet and getting ready to go back to school. I’d love to hear how school, playdates, family parties, holidays, outings, and restaurant trips go with the special diet. Those are the things I think I’ll find most challenging. Also, did your whole family go ahead and jump in? I have two kiddos, only one has autism. I’m fine with going along with it, and just for simplicity (and cross contamination) sake, I’ve also put my younger son on the diet. Any advice??? Thanks.

    • My husband and two children are GF/CF, I am the only one who doesn’t adhere to this diet. I haven’t found the change difficult. It was a hard diet to implement 20 years ago when we started because there were very little GF products available. Most restaurants now have GF options for both bread and pasta. I make baked goods with buckwheat flour, GF flour, quinoa flour or almond meal. Both kids can have gluten if need be but I just limit the amount. A little here and there does no harm as they are not Celiacs. Changing to this diet has not been difficult at all. I make most things from scratch to avoid additives. I am not a stay at home mom either – I am organized and know how to whip up food fast. Stir fries are great options, stews, chili, soups – all can be made GF/CF free. There are also many recipe books that give great ideas for this diet as well.

  5. J says:

    hi, example if the autistic child has improved alot and as they grow up accidentally ate food that aren’t gluten or diary free. Will there be any major causes to them? 

    • If the child is not having issues with their gut or other symptoms like bloating, persistent headaches, etc, the child was probably not gluten or dairy intolerant. The GF/CF diet is only effective in 20% of autism diagnoses. Many children eat a wide variety of foods and are just fine.

  6. Bindi says:

    Diet is an important concern for children with autism as some food creates some gastrointestinal tract related problems after having some food. The diet containing gluten and dairy products should be avoided in diet to avoid symptoms like stomach cramps, diarrhea, irritation etc. Note the symptoms after taking different food is very helpful strategies to figure out which food is suitable for children. Thank you for providing your good information about diet for people with autism.

  7. Ellen says:

    This is definitely true when I started a gluten and dairy free lifestyle my daughter has ADHD and she has lesser tantrums and no stomach upset like recently we tried this https://pastreez.com/pages/the-recipe and she love the macaron so much

  8. Ann Hoopsick says:

    A “fresh food, freshly prepared” gluten free diet is worth trying for everyone, but it must be done long term. It is not just the food you are eating but the damage that has been done internally and this must be healed to see the greater benefits the “real” GF diet offers and this can take some time. The reason many people do not see a change is because they have no willpower to stay “true” to the diet and also get away from the processed “GF” foods. People think it’s a game, they eat this GF and that GF but then sit down to a meal full of it the next day. It does not work like that and most people do not understand that it is like a peanut allergy. We do tell a child with a peanut allergy, “Oh, you can have a little today, it wont’ hurt you.” People don’t take the Gluten problem that serious, but I do. About the cost of GF; that’s a joke. People waste money at coffee shops for $5 cups of coffee but GF is expensive. People take vacations. Skip the vacation and put the money in to getting your family’s health. What is you and your family’s health worth? Most people are paying ridiculous amounts for health insurance that most of the time does little to “cure” health issues, but the GF diet completely cured the problems I was having and three years later I’m still good.

  9. SEAN BOULET says:

    Nice sharing of your thoughts and experience! I am definitely pragmatic when it comes to specialized diets. If parents that I work with are trying them out and are having positive results, that’s great! As I sometimes say when I do presentations (e.g. on topics such as Anxiety or Sleep) – “I’m not anti-anti-gluten”. That said, I do work with a lot of kids that are on specialized diets for seemingly a long time with no benefits (at least none that seem measurable) – and then these kids are not able to eat more “regular” (no moral judgment here!) foods with their friends (and these diets can cost a fair bit of money). I think it is always worth trying something, though. Sometimes I am surprised, however, when some people will jump into a gluten-free (or other) diet that involves mainly omissions and substitutions, but aren’t simultaneously trying to actually increase health-supporting fruits, veggies, foods high in Omega 3s, etc., etc…
    I think your article really tries to strike a balance – try things out and see what works, but always keep an eye on whether it actually works for your child and your family. Keep up your great work – your organization is awesome. : )

    • Sean, thank you for such a detailed comment to this article. I will tell you something quite exciting that has happened for my son – he now eats almost every fruit and vegetable under the sun! He just turned 20 last week. This was a long process but I attribute part of this success to exposure to those foods through his volunteer work at a local Farmer’s Market. He came into contact with growers and the fruits/veggies so a relationship developed, so to speak. Marc now eats red peppers, green beans, squash, zucchini, all berries, pineapple, corn, and peas to name a few things. He loves trying new things. While I agree that this diet can start out as limiting, we had to improve our son’s GI health first and get him stabilized.

      The GF/CF diet is only effective for about 20% of the ASD population, but it really can help if a child has these intolerances. It’s important to stay away from processed foods and even within the GF/CF diet, I still try and make most things rather than buying commercially prepared foods.

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response to the article. Your kind words are appreciated!

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