Updated on 6/30/2005
The theory that gluten-free/casein-free diets can help young children with autism comes from studies suggesting that some cases of autistic behavior result from allergies or intolerances to the proteins in milk (casein) and found in wheat (gluten, also in other grains). Limited research does show that some children with autism can't break down the proteins completely. Instead, fragments of them (peptides) get into the bloodstream and the central nervous system before eventually being eliminated in the urine. Several groups of researchers have identified these peptides in urine samples from children with autism. Some of the peptides are quite similar to morphine and, in theory, may be the agents that cause autistic behavior.
My colleague, pediatrician Sandy Newmark, M.D., tells me that he is "absolutely convinced" that gluten-casein free diets can help a certain proportion of youngsters with autism and recommends trying them whenever possible. There certainly is ample anecdotal evidence attesting to marked improvement in autistic patients as a result of removing foods containing gluten and casein from their diets. Dr. Newmark recommends the book Is This Your Child? by Doris Rapp, M.D., to parents of children with autism who want to try dietary approaches.
He notes that conventional medical therapies for autism are very poor and also recommends investigating behavioral methods of treatment, which he has found to be helpful. Dr. Newmark suggests checking the Web site of the International Autism Research Center (www.gnd.org) for an overview of available alternative therapies. You'll also find lots of practical advice for implementing a gluten-free/casein-free diet, including safe snacks and resources to help you structure the diet for your child.
Andrew Weil, M.D.