Autism is one of the most prevalent developmental disorders in the world, which is much more common than many people think. Roughly 1 in 1001 people are on the autistic spectrum in the UK and five times as many males as females. Autism is a complex biological disorder that influences a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others. It is a spectrum condition, meaning that whilst all people with autism may have similar behaviours, overall their condition will impact them in different ways. Some people may be able to lead fairly independent lives whilst others may require ongoing specialist support. No single cause has been identified and whilst it is incurable, research around genetics and environmental factors including nutrition is growing. Knowing a little about these factors may be supportive and help to generate personalised strategies for different individuals.
Some researched factors are detailed below and every family must review their needs on a very personal basis and incorporate strategies into their lifestyle that can be implemented with limited stress.
Research suggests that children with autism have a higher rate of inflammation and digestive imbalances. Symptoms can present as constipation and/or diarrhoea, undigested food in the stools, food allergies/intolerances, bloating and flatulence. It can be helpful to increase insoluble fibre as this can add volume to stools and improve transit time, which can significantly reduce the risk of constipation.
Better bacterial balance in the digestive system can also be helpful. Probiotics are important for populating the digestive system with beneficial bacteria whilst prebiotics help to feed said bacteria.
Focus on: Fibre rich foods include raw fruit with the skin (apples, pears, plum, peach), vegetables, seeds, oats, beans such as butter beans and kidney beans and dried dates and apricots.
Try prebiotic and probiotic foods including cottage cheese, olives, kefir, yoghurt, sour dough, banana, chicory and leeks. Parents could also consider a probiotic supplement.
Blood Sugar Balance:
For autistic children who show signs of hyperactivity, focusing on blood sugar balance can beneficial.
Focus on: Avoiding sugary foods, swapping white refined carbohydrates for wholegrain options and ensuring meals and snacks include a good quality protein can help to slow down the release of sugar from foods. Some snack examples include combining apple and cheese, rice cakes and cottage cheese and berries with yoghurt.
The Right Fats:
Research has highlighted that it’s common for autistic children to be low in essential fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are required for brain development and function and they can also reduce inflammation, therefore supporting the immune system and digestive health.
Focus on: Oily fish, such as sardines, salmon, mackerel or herrings 3 times a week and nuts and seeds are recommended. If your child struggles to eat fish consider an omega-3 supplement rich in EPA and DHA. It’s also important to avoid foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like margarine and baked goods as these can damage the beneficial omega-3 fats and increase inflammation.
Research also suggests autistic children can be low in essential nutrients. These can include:
- Magnesium, which is an important relaxant. Increase spinach, seeds, nuts and beans.
- Vitamin B6 is needed for energy production. Increase cauliflower, lentils, nuts, seeds and bananas in moderation.
- Zinc, which can be especially low in boys. Increase fish, seeds, nuts, and chicken.
- Vitamin C for antioxidants, sleep and digestion. Increase citrus fruits, kiwi, salad vegetables, broccoli and peppers.
Autistic children seem unusually prone to allergic conditions like asthma, eczema and hay fever suggesting immune system imbalances. Other signs and symptoms have been associated with intolerances to gluten and dairy and removing these from the diet has brought significant benefits for many children.
Focus on: Nutritional support from a registered nutritional therapist, such as myself, to support an elimination diet and note factors such as behaviour, sleep and digestion.
Many lifestyle factors can be helpful such as plenty of exercise, creating a regular sleep pattern, planning routine and structure into each day and also reducing exposure to environmental toxins such as cleaning products, toiletries and plastics.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years.
Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. She has also published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’.
1 The NHS Information Centre, Community and Mental Health Team, Brugha, T. et al (2012). Estimating the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions in adults: extending the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Leeds: NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care