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Autism: a summary of dietary strategies

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Parents of autistic children know how hard the disorder is: the ugly Asperger's meltdowns, the extreme sensitivity to stimulation that leaves some children too stressed out for normal classrooms, and the painful social rejection because of their awkward behavior. This blogger's last post dealt with a possible connection between autism and electromagnetic fields. This post deals with diet.

  • Animal studies show that exposing mice to allergens leads to behavior often associated with autism such as reduced social behavior and increased repetitive behavior. This should not be surprising: substances the body releases in response to allergic provocation have long been known to increase depressive symptoms, so it is not surprising that it might worsen other neurologically based disorders as well.
  • Camel's milk isn't just for Middle Easterners anymore. In one study, children who were fed raw, but not boiled, camels milk showed reductions in autistic behavior. No one is quite sure, yet, what substances in camels milk produce the beneficial results. Good luck trying to get raw camel's milk in America--maybe some enterprising person could raise them in a warm, dry state like Texas and market it nationally.
  • If you haven't yet had children, be aware that breastfeeding--and especially exposure to colostrum, the first substance a lactating woman produces--may have a protective effect against autism.
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, be sure to get enough thiamine, riboflavin, and vitamin D. These nutrients protect the brain. In one study, states with more women participating in the WIC program, which provides supplemental food to children and pregnant women, had lower rates of autism. On the other hand, exclusive breastfeeding increased the risk of autism, apparently because many women were low in important nutrient. Vitamin D is of special concern to dark-skinned women because they are less able to make vitamin D from sun exposure.

• This study found that breastfeeding has a protective effect against autism and discusses other risk factors--most notably, prematurity-- for developing the disorder:

By hospital discharge, male sex, lower gestation, vaginal breech delivery, abnormal cerebral ultrasound scanning results, and not having had breast milk were independently associated with autism spectrum symptoms. By 6 years, independent associates were cognitive impairment, inattention and peer problems, withdrawn behavior at 2.5 years, and not having had breast milk.

Note that prematurity itself is a risk factor for autism. The best way to reduce the risk of early birth is to get the best prenatal care possible. Since infections are a risk factor for prematurity, take steps to reduce your chance of contracting one. Wash your hands. Avoid raw meat and fish during pregnancy. Avoid sick people. Reduce the risk of urinary tract infections by taking showers instead of baths and wiping from front to back. You and your partner should be sexually monogamous during pregnancy to prevent infecting the baby with these diseases.

  • Gluten-free and casein-free diets appear to work for some children but do not work for the vast majority of autistic kids. Nevertheless, since autism is such a devastating disorder, a three-month trial of such a diet may be worth it. If you are going the gluten-free, casein-free route, though, visit a nutritionist to make sure your child gets adequate nutrition. Be especially careful about vitamin D. Research is currently underway to find those factors that determine whether a child will respond well to dietary interventions.

If you have an autistic child, take a look at the video on this page: it offers a medical perspective on the possible benefits and risks of alternative therapies.

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