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Research into the links between diet and the brain has been growing in recent years. One specific aspect being examined is the link between gluten-free food and autism. While there is little concrete evidence supporting the connection, anecdotal evidence is very strong. Allie Meyer speaks to three experts, dietitian Paula Tazzyman, Grace Fava from Autism Advisory and Support Service, and the Mindd Foundation's Leslie Embersits, about the link between diet and autistic traits, and some of the challenges they face in gaining more support.
Paula Tazzyman is a paediatric dietitian specialising in supporting children with learning and behaviour issues such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum disorder. She has seen a great rise in interest in the past few years.
PAULA TAZZYMAN: It’s scary that I have such a busy job because there are so many parents that are looking for support for their kids. Instinctively they know which foods are bad for their children. Parents are very savvy on the Internet.
ALLIE MEYER: One of the most popular or most well known diets is the gluten-free/casein-free diet, which has shown to be successful with many children with autism.
PAULA TAZZYMAN: I guess if parents do their own research they do come across the gluten-free and the milk-free [diets] and a lot of parents want to try that to see if they’re going to get some benefits. The science isn’t strong, the evidence isn’t strong, but anecdotally parents will tell you the benefits are very significant for their child. The benefits that we see is that they gain better behaviour, they’re calmer, they sleep better, supporting bowel department, digestive department, gain social skills and language skills which are the two places where the autism diagnosis comes in.
ALLIE MEYER: However not everyone finds success with the gluten free diet and many have to try variations to see what will work for their child. Grace Fava, the founder and president of the Autism Advisory and Support Service talks about some of the challenges with treating autism with diet.
GRACE FAVA: I have found that because autism is not a one size fits all approach, even with both my boys [who are autistic], they’re so different, same diagnosis but they’re so totally different. You can’t paint all our kids with the same brush, it’s not a one size fits all approach. The way I saw it was let’s give it a go, and I love the fact that if it won’t help, it won’t harm. With my oldest son we tried to go gluten-free and...he didn’t like it but he stuck to it and there was no change to his behaviours. With my youngest son, he was in preschool at the time and very addicted to bread. And he would sob for bread, for regular bread and in the end he went into the bins and was eating the scraps of the other children in the bin and when I saw that I was like 'no, you are not eating out of a bin' so I told them don’t worry about a diet just give him whatever he wants. So, did it work with my kids? No...[but] with other families that we’ve come in contact with, definitely. It’s made a big change in behaviours, some kids have lost a lot of traits of autism, cause you don’t get cured, it’s not a cold. But they’ve lost a lot of their traits, it’s really exciting, for others it’s done nothing, so it really is a try and see thing.
ALLIE MEYER: Another approach to help people with disorders like autism is biomedicine. Leslie Embersits is the director of the Mindd Foundation. She explained the basics behind the approach.
LESLIE EMBERSITS: Just to define biomedicine, because there’s a lot of confusion around it, biomedicine is really nutritional and environmental medicine. It’s understanding how environment versus genes impacts on the body.
GRACE FAVA: I know a lot of parents who’ve tried the biomedic approach, again the results differ from child to child. There are families that say my child has lost all of their traits (again I hate that word cure, you don’t cure a neurological disorder) and there are others who have seen little improvement. I have not heard of any family who have said they have not seen any change at all, but again that change varies.
ALLIE MEYER: The fundamental premise in biomedicine is based on cellular health and making sure the cells have all the nutrients to help the body function. According to Leslie, a biomedical clinician would think in simple terms nutrients in and toxins out.
LESLIE EMBERSITS: The other thing which biomedical doctors look at is diet and the diet really does vary by individual and that’s based on a lot of factors such as are the enzymes working? Are they working to break down proteins and carbs? How is their gut flora? Do they have infections like candida and strep (which can be exacerbated with refined carbohydrates)?
ALLIE MEYER: The Mindd Foundation works with professionals from around the world to focus on nutrient therapy and make a head-start on changing the minds of people who turn away at the idea of using diet to help the brain.
LESLIE EMBERSITS: Our goal is to convert about 20 per cent of practitioners to understand this biomedical model. I think the biggest opportunity for effective treatment and disease prevention all around, not just in autism but in a range of disease is to have a look at medical school curriculum and introduce more environmental medicine and nutrition.
ALLIE MEYER: The Mindd Foundation focuses a lot on the idea of food as medicine and they offer cooking classes at many of their conferences as well as recommending certain types of food for their children.
LESLIE EMBERSITS: One of our big pushes is to help parents understand that probiotics in terms of food is really essential to help heal the digestive tract.
ALLIE MEYER: There are many approaches gaining momentum as the number of children with autism continues to rise. There has been a 1500 per cent increase in the number of children with autism over the past two decades. But with organisations like the Mindd Foundation advocating around the world and trying to change medical curriculums and dietitians like Paul Tazzyman working specifically with special needs children there may continue to be more support behind this theory.