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Autism, Celiac Disease & A Gluten-Free Diet

Boy Eating Veggies

If you follow the trends in celebrity diets or read books and articles written about celebrities and their families’ medical problems, you will probably have seen something about autism being caused by celiac disease. This is actually a controversial subject. While celiac disease is a specific medical condition with specific ways to diagnose and treat it, the spectrum of autism and related disorders is much harder to define, diagnose or treat.

Autism belongs to a family of problems called Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). There have been and will continue to be changes about how to diagnose these diseases. All involve development abnormalities that cause difficulty in social interaction and communication with other people. Children with these disorders also show repetitive and other abnormal behavior. Autism includes a delay in language development as well as thought processing (cognitive development).

Parents of children with autism have a great deal of difficulty getting appropriate help for their children, and even knowing what to do. There is no definitive treatment. Various types of behavioral therapies are usually used and are the most successful the earlier they begin.

In this situation, people are looking for a cause and hopefully a cure or at least a treatment. For a long time, measles vaccine was blamed for autism because of blatantly falsified research by a British doctor. He has since been discredited and his research has been proved wrong. More recently, celebrity and other parents have begun to publicize the idea that celiac disease causes autism. They have seen improvement in their children when they put them on a gluten-free diet, often along with a lactose-free diet.

There are a couple of reasons why this could make sense. One is that children with autism frequently have gastrointestinal symptoms like cramps and diarrhea, which could be symptoms of celiac disease. For another, there have been reports of problems in the nervous system in people with celiac disease. Finally, the numbers of children with both autism and CD seem to be increasing.

However, no research actually supports the claims that these two separate problems are related.

In one large research study in Brazil, patients with each diagnosis were screened for the other. Of 147 patients with ASD (ages 1 to 35 years old), none had celiac disease. A reference group of similar ages, from the same area and otherwise similar was screened, and 0.54% of the 2034 children had CD.

211 patients with biopsy-proven CD (1 to 48 years old) were also evaluated, and two cases of ASD were found. Only one of the two patients was placed on a strict gluten-free diet. This patient had improved gastrointestinal symptoms but no change in behavior.

These researchers noted that according to the CDC, the percent of patients with ASDs with CD is 0.95%, which is not statistically different from the general population with a 0.9% of people with CD.

Reviews of the literature have also not found research that supports a link between these two problems. Since both of these diseases often begin in early childhood, and both can affect the brain and the intestine, it is possible that some link may be found, but none has been established yet.

There is no reason not to put a child with an ASD on a gluten-free diet providing all of his or her nutritional needs are met, and if any of the symptoms improve, that diet can be continued.

However, there is not any proof of this at the current time, and a gluten-free diet is difficult. It cannot be recommended to all children with autism spectrum disorders.

References:
Batista, I. C., Gandolfi, L., Nobrega, Y. K. M., et al. Autism spectrum disorder and celiac disease: no evidence for a link. Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria. 2012; 70(1): 28-33.
3. CDC. Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders – Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, United States, 20006 In: Surveillance Summaries, December 18, 2009. MMWR 2007;58
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