When it comes to children with autism, ADHD, or other sensitivities, diet changes are one of the first routes that parents take to see if they can make positive, natural changes in their children’s lives. Over the last several years, the popularity of gluten free diets has skyrocketed, and many parents have tried utilizing gluten-free eating to manage and improve behavioral symptoms in their children.
With the popularity of gluten free eating on the rise, many of us are wondering – Do these diets really work? Are there studies that support their benefits? Are there any drawbacks to having children cut gluten out of their daily diets?
As parents, we all want to make the best decisions possible for our children and that often involves doing our own research before coming to the conclusion of which route will work best for our child’s unique needs. When it comes to conditions such as autism and ADHD, we know that there is no “one size fits all” approach. However, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence out there that suggests that a gluten free diet could have a positive impact on children.
To get a better idea of the pros and cons to gluten free living, we need to evaluate the current research to make the decision that is right for our children. While current scientific evidence may not give us a conclusive answer to the effectiveness of gluten free diets for those who do not have celiac disease, the information provided can guide us to determining if it is worth trying for our own children.
Support for Gluten Free Diets
The research pertaining to autism, ADHD and gluten free diets is limited, but many parents have reported successful outcomes for their children on the spectrum after transitioning to this type of eating plan.
Generally, gluten free diets are required when a person tests positive for celiac disease – a condition in which the body has an immune response to the presence of gluten. While tests are available to check for celiac disease, the results may be inconclusive. Additionally, those who test negative for celiac may still have sensitivity to ingesting gluten without actually having the disease.
Interestingly enough, several studies have reported links between ADHD and the prevalence of celiac disease. In one study conducted from 2004 to 2008, 67 individuals with ADHD were followed, and 10 of them tested positive for celiac disease. In this specific study, following a gluten free diet was determined to be beneficial for these individuals and significant improvements in their behavior and functioning was reported.
Studies relating to autism and gluten free diets are more limited. There are theories that children with autism process gluten-containing foods differently than other individuals – exacerbating autistic symptoms. Research has found that some people with autism do have abnormal levels of peptides in their body, which suggests that there may be some merit to this theory.
Additionally, there have been long-term studies done that indicated positive effects for those on the autism spectrum who followed gluten free diets. These positive effects vary across a range of behaviors and symptoms. There is also research that suggests that other co-morbid conditions with autism, including seizure-type disorders, may be improved with this type of diet.
While evidence from these studies are not conclusive, there do appear to be definite correlations between improvement of behavior symptoms in children and eliminating gluten in their diets. However, following a strict gluten free diet can be very difficult (especially for children!), and this is a limiting factor for some families that are interested in trying this type of eating plan.
Drawbacks of Gluten Free Diet
The biggest drawback to following a gluten free diet with children is the challenge of actually eliminating gluten from their daily regimen. When you take into account schools, parties, and typical children’s “snacks”, gluten is found in the vast majority of popular foods – making it extremely challenging to ensure that your child is not exposed to the various forms of gluten.
As stated above, the scientific evidence both for and against gluten free diets for children with autism or ADHD is limited. In one study published in 2015 by the University of Rochester’s Kirch Developmental Services Center, there appeared to be no significant improvement in autistic children who followed a strict gluten free diet. Throughout the course of the study 14 young children were followed to determine if a gluten free diet substantially affected their autistic symptoms. Unfortunately, there was no measurable benefit observed by the researchers throughout the duration of the study.
In addition to the challenges of following this diet, medical professionals are also concerned over the general perception that gluten free diets are “healthier” than a regular diet. This can be misleading, and it is important to understand that eating gluten free is as healthy (or unhealthy!) as you make it. If the gluten free diet plan is well-balanced and focused on whole foods, it can provide more than adequate nutrition for children. However, many of the gluten free “diet foods” now available have an abundance of sugar and artificial ingredients that parents need to watch out for when choosing foods for their children.
Is a Gluten Free Diet Right for my Child?
After examining the different research and evidence regarding gluten free diets and their effect on autism and ADHD, there is no clear cut answer on whether this type of elimination diet will improve symptoms in children. The answer as to whether this diet is right for your family comes down to a personal decision that is best made with the support and guidance of your child’s pediatrician.
In spite of the lack of scientific evidence, countless families have praised the effects of a gluten free diet for their children. If you decide that this is a route you would like to explore, the best advice is to do your research and get a game plan in place before jumping in head first. It is essential that your child still receives proper daily nutrition while eliminating gluten from their diet, and working with a qualified nutritionist or pediatrician can help you get off to the right start.
1) “Gluten Free Diets are not Necessarily Healthier, Doctors Warn”
2) “Gluten Free Diet has no Benefits for Children with Autism, Study Finds”
3) “Association of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Celiac Disease: A Brief Report”
4) Gluten-Free/Casein-Free Diets for Autism
5) Gluten-and casein-free dietary intervention for autism spectrum conditions