Diet is essential to all bodies, but can be corrective for those on the spectrum. We believe in feeding and replenishing the mind, body and soul. Welcome to “HEALTH CORNER WITH JUDY”, a monthly column by our licensed registered dietitian, Judy Converse, MPH RD LD, about nutrition, diets, supplements and recipes.
An Autism Diagnosis. Do Those Special Diets Work?
If you’ve recently been told your child is on the autism spectrum, you’ve no doubt been given a lot of advice. Where to begin?
The first thing to know: Have hope and faith. Your child can grow up to be healthy, happy, functional, communicative, and even independent. S/he deserves this just like anyone else. I have seen this evolve for many children placed on the autism spectrum as toddlers, including my own. This is no fairy tale, no easy journey. No guarantees. But you are your child’s most important advocate. Start now to help them grow toward independence as an adult. Have faith in your child’s potential.
Second, and equally important: Trust your intuition. You know your child better than anyone – any doctor, teacher, therapist, relative, or friend. You will guide your child’s development, evolution, and learning with the help of a lot of people. Regard yourself as the boss of the team. You can fire people, including your pediatrician, if you feel your child’s potential is not being honored, served, or recognized. Be ready for this: Some of the people you most want to trust on this journey do not, will not, or cannot help. Let them go, so you can make space for those who will help.
Those are my words of wisdom as a mom – Now for some pearls of wisdom as a nutrition professional who has worked with children with autism since 1999. You’ve probably heard about using special diets, supplements, removing toxic metals, or other nutrition steps for children on the spectrum. What is that all about? I’ll be here at Wake Up For Autism each month with info and tips on nutrition and autism. Here’s some Q and A to get started:
Do special diets and nutrition interventions help kids with autism? Absolutely! Nutrition helps all children. The earlier you start, the better. We already know that the brain depends on normal nutrition to develop and learn – hardly new information! This is especially critical in pregnancy and in the first three years of life. Children with special needs are more likely to have nutrition deficits. Repairing those deficits optimizes brain and body function, so learning, growth, development and functioning work better.
Why all the controversy about special diets and autism? The controversy isn’t about whether nutrition is crucial for a child’s brain. The controversy is over whether kids on the autism spectrum differ for how they digest, absorb, and process nutrients, and how these differences may affect the brain. Many studies and my own clinical experiences have shown startling differences in nutrition, between kids with autism and typically developing kids. Yes, these can affect development profoundly, in either direction. Left untreated, children may not develop or learn to potential. Thoroughly treat these problems, and a child may recover that potential.
My doctor said there’s “no proof” diet measures help autism. Why aren’t doctors telling parents to start a special diet for a new autism diagnosis? Doctors are not nutritionists – they don’t know how to guide you. They don’t study nutrition in their training, don’t apply it as a therapy for anything in practice, and insurance plans don’t pay well when nutrition care is given to patients. It’s time consuming to do nutrition education with patients, and most pediatricians spend just a few minutes with each patient. Even specialists (neurologists, developmental pediatricians, psychiatrists) lack training on how to create a nutrition assessment or intervention. As for the “proof”, we already know how important nutrition is to the brain during development. One thing lacking from most studies on autism and nutrition or diets is appropriate nutrition screening for test subjects.
What is the key to success with special diets for autism? Work with a curious, knowledgeable professional, preferably one with a license to practice nutrition (this is required in all but four states). Have them identify your child’s nutrition deficits before you begin, so you can be confident that you are safely and effectively replenishing your child’s brain and body to potential. And, regard this is a long haul. Nutrition is a process, not a pill. Find step by step help in my book Special Needs Kids Eat Right: Strategies To Help Kids On The Autism Spectrum Focus, Learn, and Thrive.
Is nutrition the only treatment a child with autism needs? Never! Children with autism benefit from many tools to help their brains process, communicate, and learn – just like any other child. Nutrition is the foundation underneath learning, nerve growth, and brain development – it provides the raw materials for the brain to do its work. Make sure these is working optimally for your child with autism, for the most success with all other interventions.
Visit here for monthly updates on how to leverage nutrition, food, diets, supplements, and more for children with autism spectrum disorders – there’s lots to do! You can also visit the Nutrition Care For Children blog and practice sites for more info.