Parents explore link between diet and autism

Very nasty, very foul odour and full of undigested
food particles,” said Houston resident Michelle Groogan of her then
18-month-old son’s bowel movement. “It was the classic autism poop.”

Garrett was diagnosed with autism
when he was 2, and Michelle Groogan began researching ways to ease her son’s
digestive issues, which she felt were autism-related. It wasn’t long before she
came across the Gluten Free Casein Free, or GFCF, diet.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat,
rye, barley and oats. Casein is the protein in cow’s milk, as well as all
mammalian milk.

“It was very overwhelming,” Groogan
said. “I mean, everything has gluten and dairy in it.”

Groogan said health food stores and
grocery stores such as Whole Foods make it easier to find GFCF foods, but it
comes with sticker shock. She spends about $75 a week on Garrett’s food, the
same amount she spends for food for the rest of the family.

“We had nothing to lose by trying
it,” Groogan said. “Within a few months we started seeing normal stools. When
his digestive system was feeling better, we noticed he picked up more

Garrett, now 6, has been on the
diet for more than three years.

“It certainly hasn’t healed him
completely,” Groogan said, “But we’re not ready to stop the diet any time

Katherine Loveland, professor of
psychiatry and behavioural sciences and director of the Centre for Human
Development Research at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, said
the American Academy of Paediatrics released a statement recently that said
it’s possible that kids with autism have some problems that are related to
gastric disturbances, but they do not see evidence that this is a cause of

“That does not mean it might not be
important,” Loveland said. “The percentage of kids with autism that has
gastrointestinal difficulties can be 10 percent or 70 per cent depending whom
you study and how you study them. So it’s not clear how many of them have it,
or how many are relieved of it through diet.”

Anecdotally, for some, the proof is
in the pudding.

“The observer is biased,” Loveland
said. “That’s one possibility. Or it could be that the child did have some
gastric distress, pain they were not able to report, and the child is now more
comfortable day to day, and therefore feeling better, so behaving better. To
put it simply, it’s complicated.”

Sugar Land resident Scott Jackson
said he heard about the diet after his son Tyler was diagnosed with autism when
he was 2.

“It seemed to be the first question
people asked when they found out about Tyler’s diagnosis,” Jackson said. “We
decided to give it a try because just like every family desperately looking for
ways to help their child, we will try most things that can help, with or
without proof.”

Tyler, now 5, spent about 10 weeks
on the diet without any noticeable improvement, Jackson said.

Dr. Robert Sears, who will release The Autism
in April, said any parent starting their
child on the diet should give it a good six months, but children age 7 and
older need at least a year.

Food allergies, Sears said, are the
single most common medical problem shared by children with autism.

He devotes an entire chapter of the
book to diet changes, in which he writes about the GFCF diet. He said one
survey of 1,800 autistic children revealed 65 percent showed improvement on the

He said chronic diarrhoea resolves,
first words emerge, hyperactivity diminishes, and potty training becomes

Sears said the diet works best in
conjunction with supplements, including digestive enzymes, probiotics, cod
liver oil, vitamins and minerals.

Sears relates the stories of five
families from his own practices that have had some success with biomedical
treatments, including dietary changes and the addition of vitamins and

The children Sears talks about
include those with classic regressive autism, which means kids who are
“completely normal” the first year or two, and then go backwards developmentally,
sometimes suddenly and dramatically.

Sears drives homes the point by
saying early intervention “can change a life.” He also says he has had cases of
children who don’t fit the classic story of regressive autism with gastrointestinal
symptoms, but who still benefit from the GFCF diet.

One such patient didn’t have
constipation or diarrhea and didn’t regress socially or developmentally, but
was quite developmentally delayed. The child was diagnosed with autism, and
Sears said he showed improvement after going on the GFCF diet, and adding vitamin
B12 and zinc.

Sears wraps up his book with a
chapter titled “Prevention for Your Future Children.”

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