What we eat can have a positive or negative effect on our mood and overall health. Parents and caregivers of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism, may need to pay close attention to the child’s diet, since some research suggests a link between food and autism symptoms. Some experts recommend gluten free diets for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because many children with autism and developmental disabilities have food sensitivities. However, researchers are still trying to determine whether a gluten-free or dairy-free diet has any negative effects at all.

Here’s a closer look at some of the latest research on gluten free diets and autism, and diet modifications that can potentially have a positive effect on children with developmental disabilities:

Dietary Interventions for Children with Autism

The experts at Brain Balance Centers make a strong case about the link between ‘leaky gut’ syndrome and behavior. Leaky gut syndrome occurs when foods that do not get fully digested end up seeping through the gut lining and triggering an immune response. This creates inflammation in the body which in turn can affect the child’s behavior.

Dr. Doni Wilson, a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine and natural health expert, has published a series of articles on the subject in the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She points to research that suggests leaky gut can cause depression, anxiety, and migraine headaches — just a few symptoms that individuals with developmental disabilities often experience.

The American Pediatrics Association has formally recognized leaky gut-related issues in children with autism, stating that it is possible that some children with ASDs with gastrointestinal problems can reap some benefits from a gluten free and casein free diet — especially if they also have celiac disease. However, the organization points out that the theory of a link between gluten and casein and autism still remains unproven.

In fact, study findings published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders—led by Susan Hyman, co-leader of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network site at the University of Rochester Medical Center—found no improvement in behavior or autism symptoms when children with autism were placed on a  gluten-free and casein-free diet. Researchers have yet to identify a critical link between diet and autism symptoms.

Diet Modifications for Children with Autism

While there is no solid evidence that a gluten-free or casein-free diet is the answer for improving behavioral symptoms and cognitive function of children with autism, nutritional counseling still plays an important role in an overall care plan.

Since many children with developmental disabilities have food allergies and food sensitivities, it can be helpful to identify allergenic and offending foods through blood tests and elimination diets. Autism Speaks recommends exploring complementary approaches for treating autism, including trying out a gluten-free and casein-free diet to see if symptoms improve.

The nonprofit organization Food for the Brain reports one in three adults and children with behavioral problems have food allergies to common foods, such as milk, wheat, yeast and eggs. Eating these foods can have adverse effects on the central nervous system, including symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Again, a ‘leaky gut’ is to blame, so these individuals need to work toward maintaining healthy digestion and eliminating foods that may be exacerbating the problem.

Working with an experienced nutritionist can also help. The nutritionist can create individualized meal plans as part of a non-aversive autism treatment plan. Parents can teach children how to make healthy food choices by avoiding offending foods so children maintain a better state of health.

Understanding the effects of eating certain foods and digestive health issues in children with developmental disorders is an important part of the non-aversive autism treatment planning process. While we are still waiting on more research on the link between gluten free diets, food allergies, and autism, parents and caregivers can explore complementary approaches to manage autism symptoms effectively.