3 Things You Can Do at Home to Help a Special Needs Child

3 Things You Can Do at Home to Help a Special Needs ChildParents of children with special needs, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders or ADHD, sometimes feel powerless when it comes to helping their children. Most of the therapies available to treat these and other neurobehavioral disorders need to be administered and monitored by professionals such as physicians, psychologists and occupational therapists.

Yet, the day-to-day challenges often faced by parents of these children can be overwhelming, especially while waiting to determine if professional therapies are producing desired results.  The good news is that parents do have the ability to implement a treatment modality that will affect a significant part of a child’s life – their diet.

According to the Journal of Pediatrics only 1 % of young people between the ages of two and nineteen eat a healthy diet. While there are increasingly more behavioral therapies available, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on how poor eating habits are jeopardizing the development of a healthy brain. Many children are fussy eaters and exasperated parents will allow their kids to eat anything, “just so they eat”.

However, poor nutrition is a big threat to brain development, because without the necessary building blocks, the brain can’t function properly. When the brain isn’t optimally equipped, the success rate of traditional therapies is reduced and, in many cases, undesirable symptoms commonly associated with neurobehavioral disorders are exacerbated.

Despite mounting evidence, many physicians still dismiss dietary intervention as an adjunctive treatment of these disorders. Some suggest that a healthier diet “won’t hurt,” but they may not necessarily encourage or recommend dietary changes even though it remains one of the safest, least invasive interventions available.

Anecdotally, parents around the world have reported dramatic progress after implementing a specialized diet. Such progress includes improvements in bowel function, behavior, attention, language and sociability. For a large number of children, a specialized nutritional plan is a critical piece of the therapy puzzle. For others, the results may be less dramatic. In a minority of cases, dietary changes do not seem to help at all. But there is no way to determine how dietary changes will affect your child until you implement the changes and allow a few weeks to properly evaluate whether there has been any  improvement.

Here are the 3 ways you can help your child at home:

1)      Eliminate

Eliminating known “food offenders” and suspected offenders is the best place to start. Stop stoking the fire. When the brain is continually irritated by these foods, it can’t focus on tending to its functions.  The most common culprits are gluten and casein but there are several others as well. (I will be covering them in upcoming posts. Subscribe to the blog to have the information delivered to your email once it posts).

Consider having your child tested for food sensitivities. This is different than common allergy testing which may not pick up on milder sensitivities. Food sensitivity testing is usually done by holistic physicians who practice alternative medicine.

If you cannot or choose not to have this testing done, you can try following the “elimination diet” protocol. This involves eliminating certain foods for a period of time, usually three or four weeks, then slowly reintroducing  individual foods and monitoring your child for reactions or return of behavioral challenges.

Once you discover which foods your child is sensitive to, eliminate them from their diet for an extended period of time.

2)      Add

Replace missing nutrients and restore depleted vitamin stores either via food replacements or supplements. For example, if you are removing gluten, you will replace wheat bread with gluten-free bread. If you have eliminated casein by removing dairy products from the diet, add a calcium supplement until you learn which vegetables are rich sources of calcium.

Seek the advice of your physician or nutritionist if you need help developing a balanced diet.  There are also many books available on the market which can help with your meal planning and guide you to boosting brain power through food.  (Again, I will be posting more on this topic in the near future, so stay tuned.)

3)      Teach

Children are inundated with fast food, candy and soda. So the earlier you start teaching them the truth about the foods they are eating, the better. Instilling an understanding of vitamins and other basic nutritional principles can lead to a lifetime of healthy eating habits. This will also help them make better food choices when you are not around.

Use language that your child will understand and can relate to. Explain that food isn’t just fuel it is also information.  Every bite of food you eat sends some sort of message to your body.  And your body responds accordingly.

The thought of implementing a specialized diet can seem overwhelming until you have a simple plan to guide you. By following the E.A.T. model (Eliminate, Add, Teach) you will have the power each day to improve your child’s quality of life and set them up for long-term success. Pacing yourself as you learn and apply the changes will lead to giant leaps for your child. Once you recognize the impact certain foods have on your child’s success in other therapies, you just might be inspired to continue on the journey.

Parents are notorious for saying they will do anything for their child. Even though it seems daunting, would you be willing to try a specialized diet? Have you already embarked on this journey? Have you noted improvements?

To encourage other parents who are considering this option, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your stories.


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  1. Gina says

    My son and I have been gluten free for only a week. I find I really want to stick with it for him. I haven’t even cheated when he’s not around. I am way more convicted about my boys diet than my own. It seems to be helping. :)

  2. michelle says

    I’ve read the above information but I desperately need help,my son of 8 yrs old is PDD-NOS,non verbal,we took all his unhealthy foods away slowly and replaced slowly ith healthy foods,he in turned showed us he wouldn’t eat for 2 days. We were @ Dieticians bought & made all different healthy foods but He rejected all this,we need help desperately!

  3. says

    I’d love to help you troubleshoot.As they get older, we have to get wiser with how we implement the changes. Hang in there. It’s not always easy. What kinds of foods does he like to eat? Is he partial to particular brands of those foods or just the textures? Is his diet high in dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt,etc) or breads (cakes, crackers, cookies, etc)? Tell me more.

  4. Alice says

    I love your blog and have signed up. Just a quick question, my 7yr old is very fond of yogurts, petit filous and ice cream. We are taking him off dairy from next week. We are planning to substitute with coconut milk for his cocoa drink and hopefully cereal if he can tolerate it. What would you recommend I try as far as yogurts and ice cream are concerned?

  5. says

    Thanks for your question. When we removed animal milk from our diet, I bought 1 carton each of Rice milk (Costco has the best one, it tastes very much like skim milk and not very much like rice), Almond milk (get the Original, Unsweetened version) and Coconut milk. I made a taste testing game of it. I blind folded them and had them taste each kind and tell me which one they liked the best. Then I used that one for cereal, etc. The other milks I used in protein shakes or to make hot cereal (cream of buckwheat or oatmeal). As for yogurts, I would recommend doing the same thing. Keep in mind that if you choose a soy product, make sure it is made with NON-GMO soy beans. It will say on the label. A lot of kids are sensitive to soy, we try to avoid it in our house. For ice cream – there are non-dairy ice creams available in pints. You could taste test those as well and use the ones you “don’t like” in smoothies,etc. However, the non-dairy ice creams are pricey. I make my own popsicles (search Popeye Pushups on this blog) or I buy sorbet which is usually non-dairy. We live near a Trader Joes and their sorbets are delicious! Hope this helps!


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