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Special diet did not help children with autism, study finds

May 19, 2010 |  1:36 pm

Cookies Some parents report that dietary changes can help improve the behavior, sleep and bowel patterns of children with autism. That relationship is extraordinarily hard to prove, however, requiring a study with strict control of a child's diet and intense observation of symptoms over a period of time. Not surprisingly, few strong studies examining diet and autism have been carried out. The few that have been done have yielded mixed results.

A study released Wednesday provides some evidence that dietary changes that involve eliminating gluten and/or casein from the diets of children with autism are not effective. The study was small -- only 14 children -- but it was the most rigorously conducted trial on the association so far.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center tested 14 children with autism who did not have celiac disease or diagnosed food allergies. The children were placed on strictly controlled gluten- and casein-free diets (called GFCF diet). After at least four weeks the children were randomized to receive either milk, wheat, both or neither. The food substances were disguised in the child's favorite foods, and neither the parents nor investigators rating the children's behaviors knew whether they were receiving gluten or casein.

The study found no changes in the children's behavioral symptoms, sleep time, night walking, activity, or bowel habits and symptoms.

While carefully conducted, the study is so small that investigators can't rule out that some children might benefit from special diets, however.

"It would have been wonderful for children with autism and their families if we found that the GFCF diet could really help, but this small study didn't show significant benefits," the lead author of the study, Dr. Susan Hyman, said in a news release. "However, the study didn't include children with significant gastrointestinal disease. It's possible those children and other specific groups might see a benefit."

The study was presented Wednesday at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Beatrice De Gea / Los Angeles Times

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