Autism and Food Intolerances – Dietary tools

The last few articles have focused on leveling the playing field for your child, giving him (or her) some of the tools that will help them get the most out of life.

But now to turn the spotlight on food allergies and intolerances; problems which often appear at the same time as the sensory differences become apparent. Which comes first is a moot point but, in my experience, some food intolerances can certainly increase sensitivity to sound (although they don’t cause hyperacusis).

It is often said, “we are what we eat” but such a simplistic approach takes no account of individual differences. Indeed, the foods eaten are irrelevant unless the body is able to digest and process the food correctly – something that is certainly not the case for many children with ASD.

This is a contentious area partially because the effects on such children are often behavioral – so that the child (or adult) may become hyperactive or disruptive – often within one or two hours of eating.

The types of foods that have been implicated in this vary but include casein (found in milk), gluten (in wheat and other cereals) – as well as other foods, like chocolate, oranges, carrots and more. These can sometimes result in quite bizarre behaviours from the little girl who would invariably begin to head-bang after drinking milk to the boy who, unobserved, ate a whole packet of Jaffa cakes, and then began swinging on the furniture and almost ‘climbing the walls.


The idea of food intolerances has been around since the 1980s but although some professionals advocate a dietary approach (often eliminating casein and gluten), others still dismiss the idea. Meanwhile some parents have seen the benefits for themselves,  others have tried with scant success and some have tried only to abandon them as too restrictive.

We’ll look at the casein/gluten free diets in the next article but if you feel that your child might be allergic to or intolerant of some food do seek professional advice wherever possible,  especially if your child has constant stomach aches and other possible symptoms.

Meanwhile there are some simple steps that you might find helpful to take prior to implementing any elimination program.

These include:

• Keeping a daily diary.*  This should include the food eaten at each meal (and in-between meals, as well as any physical problems like stomach aches or unusual behaviors like head-banging or hyperactivity in the following 2 hours.

Giving thought to how you would implement the diet.

• If possible involve the whole family in the diet as that means your child will not have to face the temptation of seeing his siblings (or you) eating foods he is not allowed to touch – or of knowing that there is a cake or jar of cookies in the cupboard.

• Implement any changes (or additions) SLOWLY –  or you may run into problems as with the child who became ‘allergic to health food shops!’

  •  If you need to eliminate a particular food and change to another, do it gradually by adding a little bit of the new food to the old. For example, add a drop of rice milk to a glass of cow’s milk, gradually increasing one and decreasing the other a drop or two at a time.
  • If adding supplements introduce and build them up gradually so that the any possible adverse reactions are spotted.

• Alternate the most frequently eaten foods (and those to which you think he is intolerant) with other foods, so eventually he only eats them every third day.

Meanwhile you can also help support his digestive system by:

• Using organic or locally-sourced food where possible. This will reduce the number of additives consumed.
• Instead of eliminating cakes, biscuits and sweets, try organic or home-made products.
• Use the GI approach, which means opting for foods low on the glycaemic index.
• Some children benefit from avoiding food combinations, like eating proteins and carbohydrates together.
• Add a good probiotic to his diet.
• Provide a snack for mid-morning and mid-afternoon like a piece of  fruit, fruit & nut bar etc.

Click here for your Free Dietary Diary

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About Stella Waterhouse

Stella Waterhouse first came across autism in the late 1960s when she met three very different children, all of whom shared the same diagnosis. She began researching autism in 1990 and is a published author of several books including A Positive Approach to Autism which attracted good reviews from such well known autism experts as Donna Williams and Paul Shattock OBE. She has also authored a series of concise but informative books for parents and teachers, and is currently completing her forthcoming series The Autism Code.

For more information see www.autismdecoded.com