There are no real answers to the question of what causes autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are many theories and possibilities, however, ranging from the advent of processed foods to genetic mutations and metabolic disorders. One thing is certain, though: children with autism often suffer from nutritional deficiencies, which are brought on by behavioral or gastrointestinal issues. 

Nutritional Hurdles

There are many reasons why a child on the autism spectrum might not get adequate nutrition, including sensitivity or aversion to specific colors, textures, or odors. A child within an aversion to the color green, for example, may resist green beans, lettuce, spinach, and other green or leafy fruits and vegetables. Likewise, a person on the autism spectrum may dislike the way that cold or wet foods feel inside their mouth.

Children with autism are also often very picky and may only have a small list of “acceptable” foods they will eat. Compounding selective eating habits is that children on the autism spectrum might demand that their food is prepared the same way each time. For example, an ASD child might expect mashed potatoes to be the same consistency each time the dish is served.

Just as concerning is the fact that children with autism tend to experience gastrointestinal complaints more often than their typical counterparts. Diarrhea, constipation, and heartburn are common among diagnosed children, and these issues are only worsened by poor nutrition.

A Change in Diet May Help

To be clear, it’s unlikely that diet causes autism, and changing a child’s diet is not a cure for the condition. However, that doesn’t mean that making alterations to what a child with autism eats is without benefits.

There is evidence to suggest that improved nutritional intake can treat symptoms of some co-occurring health conditions. In turn, providing relief for these issues may result in changed behavior. Cutting out casein, a protein found in milk and other dairy products, may help to reduce some discomfort in children sensitive to it. There is also evidence that suggests that sugar, corn, and some artificial ingredients can worsen some symptoms of autism.

Dietary Guidelines for Children

All children require a variety of foods to achieve optimal health. There are specific dietary recommendations for children between the ages of one and 18 years, and while the quantities vary slightly by age, most children should consume dairy, protein, fruits and vegetables, and grains each day.

Further, as with all children, parents are encouraged to reduce a child’s access to non-healthy fats, sugars, artificial flavorings, food dyes, and processed foods. A diet that centers around produce and lean proteins is almost always best.

Helping Your Autistic Child Eat Well

It’s not always easy to encourage a child with autism to break from their preferences or routine. However, there are a few tactics that might help. One is to engage in behavioral therapy by offering a reward for each new food the child tries. Be cautious, however, and do not provide a prize for each bite, or you risk spending your entire dinner time dealing in incentives.

Providing foods that are similar to ones the child already enjoys is another approach that can help open up an autistic child’s palate. For example, a child that likes chicken nuggets may also enjoy fish sticks. The key is to take it slowly and to graduate to new food choices as the child learns to accept different tastes and textures.

Another approach is to give the child some control at each meal by offering several options. While this might not be practical day after day, the occasional buffet-style meal will give your child some control over what they eat while providing the opportunity to try new and interesting foods.

Supplemental Sources

Even those children who are open to eating a variety of foods can suffer from nutritional deficits. Many experts recommend supplementing with vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, or multivitamins. Children with severe gastrointestinal disorders may also benefit from adding digestive enzymes and probiotics to their diet. This may relieve stomach pain, gas, and bloating, which can at the very least help the child feel more comfortable, which may reduce behavioral outbursts and improve concentration.

Elimination Diet

An elimination diet is simply the process of eliminating certain foods to help identify triggers of gastrointestinal distress. This process can take two to four weeks, and it may be combined with medical testing to confirm food allergies. Elimination is also one of the most effective ways to identify food sensitivities that can cause inflammation and other health problems.

If you are the parent of a child with autism, talk with their healthcare team before changing their diet. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that your child receives enough of the right kinds of foods to support their mental and physical health. Be realistic in your expectations, and remember that while there is no cure for autism, you can help improve other aspects of your child’s wellness through their diet.