Rates of autism have been on the rise in the US over the last few decades. The exact cause of this is unknown; part of the reason may be due to an increased degree of awareness and diagnosis. This uncertainty is reflected in a major change to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5): the terms autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder have been replaced by the single umbrella term autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Holistic doctors and concerned parents continue to search for therapies that can help mitigate the symptoms of autism in any way. One of the cornerstones of this natural approach has been a gluten-free diet.
The theory behind this is that children with ASD are particularly susceptible to a compromised barrier in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract — a condition known as “leaky gut”. This allows larger “chunks” of protein to make it into the bloodstream without being fully digested. Gluten, the main protein in wheat and related grains, can contribute to this GI damage. The gluten protein in the bloodstream can also stimulate an immune system response; the resulting inflammation can have an impact on the nervous system, exacerbating autistic behaviors.
New research out of Italy (1) demonstrated that children with ASD have a higher rate of IgG antibodies to gluten than healthy children of the same age. They did not have higher rates of lab markers for celiac disease, such as tissue transglutaminase antibodies, and the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes. This indicates that there is a continuum of sensitivity to gluten other than full-blown celiac disease.
While the authors of the study are cautious in their interpretation of these results, it just adds more support to the naturopathic approach of a gluten elimination diet, along with nutritional and herbal therapies to help repair the lining of the GI tract. A gluten-free diet is not easy under the best of circumstances in our culture; for autistic children, who often have very strong food preferences, it can be even more difficult. However, with the prospect of significant behavioral improvement, it’s definitely worth a try.