For a variety of reasons, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may not get the nutrition they need for healthy growth and development.1,2,3,4 Some children with autism will only eat certain foods because of how the foods feel in their mouths. Other times, they might avoid eating foods because they associate them with stomach pain or discomfort. Some children are put on limited diets in hopes of reducing autism symptoms.
It is important that parents and caregivers work with a nutrition specialist—such as a registered dietitian—or health care provider to design a meal plan for a person with autism, especially if they want to try a limited diet. Such providers can help to make sure the child is still getting all the nutrients he or she needs to grow into a healthy adult, even while on the special diet.
For example, many children with ASD are on gluten-free or casein-free diets. (Gluten and casein are types of proteins found in wheat and milk products, respectively.) Available research data do not support the use of a casein-free diet, a gluten-free diet, or a combined gluten-free, casein-free diet as a primary treatment for individuals with ASD.5
Good Nutrition Is Important
Research shows that children with autism tend to have thinner bones than children without autism.6 Restricting access to bone-building foods, such as dairy products, can make it even harder for their bones to grow strong. Working with a health care provider can help ensure that children who are on special diets still get the bone-building and other nutrients they need.
Digestive Problems in ASD
Some people with autism also have digestive problems, such as constipation, abdominal (belly) pain, or vomiting. Some research7 suggests that digestive problems occur more often in people with autism than in people without autism, but research is still being done on this topic.5,7 Working with a health care provider can help ensure that a diet does not make digestive problems worse.
NICHD and other agencies and organizations will continue research to learn more about how children with autism grow and if they have specific nutritional needs.