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Unlocking the Power of Nutrition: How Feeding Your Child With Autism Is a Game-Changing Approach

Updated: Mar 22

A father feeding his son with autism

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Are you interested in learning how diet can help your child with autism?

As a seasoned behavioral feeding coach and parent to a child on the autism spectrum, I've witnessed firsthand the positive impact that diet can have on our kids' overall health and well-being.

While there's no known cure for autism, and every kid is different, research shows that a balanced diet can go a long way to help manage some of the symptoms associated with autism. Addressing what our kids are eating is something we do have some control over (yes, even if they're picky eaters), and something that's definitely worth considering when it comes to key interventions to help our kids.

Being the mom of two boys with extremely sensitive and selective palates, and working for nearly two decades as a healthy eating/behavioral feeding coach for kids, I've had my share of opportunities to reform picky eaters.

One thing is certain, our kids with autism are very often, very picky eaters, usually with sensory issues to the nth degree! Sound familiar?

Understanding the Link Between Autism and Diet

The connection between autism and diet is complex. To date, researchers have identified several factors that contribute to the link. And yet, sadly we're still not talking about diet openly enough to support it as a standard intervention for autism.

Studies show that individuals with autism seem to have trouble digesting certain foods or absorbing nutrients properly, which can lead to significant nutritional deficiencies. Experts now recognize the relationship between having a leaky gut and developing autism. A leaky gut leads to inflammation and immune system dysfunction, disrupting proper functioning of the body.

One of the key findings of autism diet studies is that a gluten-free and casein-free diet helps to reduce symptoms of autism in children.

In a nutshell, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, while casein is a protein found in milk and other dairy products. Some research has suggested that individuals with autism may have difficulty digesting these proteins, which can lead to gastrointestinal problems, inflammation, and other health issues. As a result of these digestive issues, problems with language development, learning, and behavior can be amplified. Incidentally, dairy and wheat are two of the most common food intolerances or allergies for all human beings.

Since our bodily systems - gastrointestinal, immune, and neurological systems - are all interconnected, it makes sense that an imbalance in one system affects the others. Recognizing this leads to our understanding and practice as to why gut health is so important in autism and all health conditions.

A boy eating cereal

Foods to Avoid for Children with Autism

Parents of children with autism often wonder what foods they should avoid to help manage their child's symptoms. While every kid is different, there are some foods that are commonly associated with negative reactions when it comes to feeding your child with autism. These include gluten, dairy, soy, artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and sugar.

It's important to note that not all children with autism will have a negative reaction to these foods, and different foods are problematic for different kids, but they are worth considering when creating an autism diet plan.

While this list can seem overwhelming (gluten and dairy are in just about everything in a box), taking steps to first clean up the diet from artificial ingredients and preservatives is a reasonable place to start. From there, you can learn more about what specific dietary changes may be best for your child.

Safe Foods and Diets for Feeding Your Child with Autism

There are plenty of foods that are considered safe for children with autism. As long as there are no individual allergies or intolerances, these include fruits and vegetables, lean proteins such as chicken and fish, nuts and seeds, and gluten-free grains such as quinoa and brown rice. And fear not, now there are tons of ready-made products to sub for your child's favorites, as you ease them into also accepting more healthy foods into their diet.

Check out Julie Matthew's site, Nourishing Hope for excellent information about dietary interventions for autism, including the research behind autism/ADHD and diet.

Regardless of what diet you consider, keeping the emphasis on healthier eating is an important first place to start. Overcoming the obstacle of picky eating is a big part of that. Our kids' rigidity can make it a bit tricky. And yet, when we adopt the mindset that the eating piece is an essential part of their overall wellness (including learning and behavior), we are empowered to feel increasingly hopeful about our kids' progress. We can equip ourselves with the tools we need to address feeding as part of a comprehensive treatment plan to support our kids' overall growth and success.

Understanding the reasons behind picky eating for our kids helps us know where to start.

A picture of the book Build a Better Eater by Patty Canton

My short, go-to guidebook Build a Better Eater explains the "Why?" behind picky eating for our kids (there are more reasons than you think) and provides the "How To" strategies with my proven plan to help transform your picky eater into a brave taster.


How Diet Helps with Nutritional Needs in Children with Autism

Children with autism are at increased risk for nutritional deficiencies due to a variety of factors, including picky eating habits and digestive issues. Some of the most common deficiencies found in children with autism include vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients are important for brain health and can help manage some of the symptoms associated with autism.

Nutritional deficiencies can be complex, and once again, it's important to work with your qualified healthcare professional to best understand and meet your child's individual nutritional needs.

A boy eating some salad

How a Healthy Diet Can Help Manage Autism Symptoms

Eating a well-rounded diet full of healthy nutrients can make a big difference in managing certain autism symptoms. For instance, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help improve communication and social skills in children with autism. Also, cutting back on sugary treats and foods with artificial colors and flavors may help reduce hyperactivity and improve focus. Interestingly, these dietary changes often benefit kids with ADHD too.

Tips for Creating a Successful Autism Diet Plan

Creating a successful autism diet plan can be challenging, but it is possible with the right tools and guidance. Here are some tips to help get you started:

  • Work with a qualified healthcare professional to determine which foods to include and which to avoid.

  • Keep a food diary to track your child's reactions to different foods.

  • Be open to explore different diets to see which works best for your child.

  • Be patient and understanding. It may take time to see results from dietary changes.

Additional Resources for Autism and Diet

There are many resources available now for parents of children with autism who are interested in using diet as a tool for managing symptoms and improving health. Along with Julie Matthew's site, The Autism Research Institute and the Autism Nutrition Research Center are among two of the great resources that provide information and support for families. Additionally, there are many books and websites that provide recipes and guidance for creating autism-friendly meals.

Summing Up: The Power of Diet for Managing Autism Symptoms

While there's no cure for autism, a healthy, balanced diet can help manage some of the symptoms associated with autism, and for some, incredible outcomes are experienced. By avoiding certain foods and incorporating nutrient-rich foods while feeding your child with autism, you can help improve their overall health and well-being.

Remember to work with a qualified nutrition professional who understands autism so that you can determine the best diet for your child. Be patient as you experiment with different foods and come to understand how your child's diet affects their health, learning, and behavior. With time and dedication, you can unlock the power of diet to help manage your child's autism symptoms, and to promote their overall health and wellness.

A boy with special needs wearing glasses and smiling

All blog content shared through HealthSmart! Kids is for informational purposes only and not to be construed as medical advice. Always talk with your qualified health care provider for managing your health care needs.


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