Nutrition can play a role in managing autism |

Nutrition can play a role in managing autism

Mary Koch

You may or may not be aware that April is National Autism Awareness Month. Individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are increasing in numbers almost exponentially. As a result, we as a society are looking for ways to treat this growing segment of the population, and fortunately there are many helpful treatments available. Today I’d like to explore how nutrition can play an integral role in helping individuals and families cope.

It’s very common for a child with ASD to also have gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Their bowel habits can be varied and irregular compared to their typically developed peers. From this stems the need to modify food intake to prevent discomfort and promote optimal GI functioning. For these children, gluten-free diets, and in some cases casein-free as well, can be a godsend, helping to control symptoms and thus decreasing undesirable behaviors. Approximately 50 percent of children diagnosed with ASD respond favorably to these or similarly limited diets with cognitive and/or behavior improvements. While these diets are not a cure in and of themselves, they can make the child more comfortable and more able to learn and interact appropriately. Just check out the internet or the library and you’ll find there are a multitude of resources and products available for these children.

Whether a child with ASD displays GI symptoms or not, they may be very limited in what they will eat. There are a variety of reasons for this including oral and tactile sensitivities. We tend to think of food just in terms of how it looks and tastes, but to someone with ASD, they may be bothered by how a food feels in their mouth or what it sounds like as it’s chewed. Imagine being forced to eat something you can’t tolerate and being unable to communicate that to the person feeding you. It’s easy to see how some behaviors can quickly escalate out of control.

Experts agree that early intervention is key to treating ASD symptoms. Keeping that in mind, nutrition plays a large part in healthy brain development. Even a child that is eating adequate calories can still be deficient in key nutrients, that although by itself may not lead to extinguishing behaviors, will help ensure that the child’s brain develops to its fullest. A good high-quality multivitamin, adequate protein intake and omega-3 supplements are recommended to promote optimal brain development.

If you or someone you know is raising a child with autism, I highly recommend the book Eating For Autism: The 10-Step Nutrition Plan to Help Treat Your Child’s Autism, Asperger’s, or ADHD, written by Elizabeth Strickland, MS, RD, LD for more detailed information a guidance.

Mary Koch is a Registered Dietitian at Banner Churchill Community Hospital and the VA Lahontan Valley Outpatient Clinic. Send your nutrition questions to Mary at