One of the more pronounced symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder is the development of restrictive and oftentimes obsessive behaviour that can be hard to change or eliminate. Autistic kids who have this trait will most likely manifest it in other aspects of development aside from the normal playtime, more likely in their eating pattern.  Because good nutrition is the cornerstone of a child’s growth and development, it is essential that parents must always find a way to feed their kids with balanced and highly nutritious meals. This is where the display of picky eating behaviour becomes a source of worries for parents as it not only cuts off their child’s access to much-needed nutrients, it can also lead to more health complications and unhealthy parent-child relationship if not addressed at an early stage.

There are many possible factors that can make an autistic child a picky eater. Some autistic traits, for instance, can cause the child to lose appetite for certain types of food, or even neglect them totally. If your child has a high sensory sensitivity, there’s a great chance that he or she might not like too hot or too cold foods, as well as those that have strong flavour or odour, and overwhelming colour or appearance. Being too obsessed with the things that interest them, may it be toys, books, TV and tasks, can easily take their attention away from any other stuff including meal time. There are also autism-specific medications that can lessen the person’s appetite as a side effect of intake, like Ritalin, which is a type of stimulant that controls hyperactivity. Addressing these issues with sufficient knowledge and the right approach can be effective enough in managing your child’s picky eating behaviour.

While your child’s tendency to develop a restrictive diet can be managed, the more pressing issue when it comes to feeding your autistic child will be choosing what food to serve, according to their preference and nutritional needs. Based on the claims of autism research and medical studies, there are specific types of food that can worsen the symptoms of autism because of the chemical component found in them. Food components such as gluten and casein, for instance, are said to worsen the symptoms of autism by affecting functions of the brain and central nervous system when the person eats food rich in said components. Although there are still not enough clinical studies done to validate these claims, many reports have indicated that introducing a gluten-free, casein-free diet to the autistic person helps alleviate their condition. What foods contain gluten and casein and how does a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet help in the overall wellness of autistic individuals?

Foods Containing Gluten

You may not know it but most of the staple food today contain gluten. The three essential grains namely rye, barley and wheat all have gluten contents in their seeds, as a protein that makes food hold together by acting as a glue or binding agent (as in bread dough). As such, you have to know that almost every baked goods contain gluten in them, but not all. Gluten can even be found in pasta, seasonings, salad dressings, soy sauce and other condiments. If you really want to avoid gluten-containing products, the best thing to do would be to search for a gluten-free corner in the shops or stores in your area where gluten-free alternative products are displayed, or always check on the label or ingredients of the food that you are about to serve to the autistic person.

Deciding to impose a gluten-free diet would mean that the person’s intake of fibre, and other nutrients and minerals found in grain products and bread will be cut off. This is why it’s important that as a parent who has control over the choice of food your child will eat, you have to provide for the lost nutrition by introducing similar alternative food choices which can be quite tough with your child’s aversion.

Foods Containing Casein

Casein, on the other hand, is a type of protein that is found in milk and other dairy products. Knowing that milk and other dairy ingredients are also used for making dozens of common food products such as cookies, cereals, salad dressings and chocolates, it becomes very challenging for parents to provide sufficient nutrition for their kids following a casein-free diet. Fortunately, there are also known substitutes for casein-based products in the market today, such as coconut butter, soup products,  and milk derived from soy, rice, and potato.

Why GFCF Diet?

It is primarily believed that many people on the autism spectrum have developed certain allergic reactions to foods containing gluten or casein. In contrast to neurotypical individuals, autistic people are observed to process peptides and protein components in food quite differently. This characteristic, which is often called “leaky gut”, allows the gluten and casein compounds to travel into the bloodstream and results to opium-like effects in the brain and central nervous system. Autistic individuals who have eaten foods containing gluten and casein are observed to have worsened autism symptoms, which finally led to the idea of a gluten-free, casein-free diet for autistic persons to help improve social skills, speech, and behaviour.

What to Do Before Adapting to a GFCF Diet

It is important for parents to realize the impact of a GFCF diet into their child’s overall wellness. As a parent, you must brace yourself for inevitable challenges that will come your way as you introduce such dietary set up to your kid. More importantly, there are things that you need to do first before jumping straight to the implementation of a GFCF diet. Foremost, you need to consult a dietician about this decision so that you will be guided on how to approach this matter effectively and safely. It is also necessary to ensure that you can get enough supply of products that you need to successfully follow a GFCF diet whether through online shops or physical stores.