Why Gluten-free Diets are Important in Autism Spectrum Disorders

You do not realize how much wheat you are taking in on a daily basis until you are put in a position to avoid it.  Like  a typical parent, I didn’t think too much about the food we ate each day. I figured that since I cooked regularly and avoided fast food places most of the time, we were good! Once I had to refocus my lens to help my Asperger’s son, I was shocked at how much of our culture’s diet is based around wheat and wheat derivatives.  We definitely have a dietary imbalance and there is no way this can be healthy for us. Remember, we are supposed to be eating balanced meals.

Gluten-free diets are commonly used in the treatment of autism and other behavioral disorders. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, spelt and rye.  This protein has become pervasive in the Standard American Diet and is found in everything from chicken nuggets to salad dressing.

Many people do not realize that gluten intolerance does not always manifest as digestive symptoms. Your child may not complain of stomach aches or not feeling well after eating wheat products. Symptoms usually present themselves as cognitive or behavioral in nature but there are many physical symptoms such as migraines, fatigue, hyperactivity and mood disorders.

People with a leaky gut have a difficult time digesting gluten.  Improperly digested gluten proteins react with receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of opioids such as heroin and morphine. They can affect speech, cognitive and auditory processing, and decrease the ability to feel pain. This opioid reaction can also become addictive.  For some, the craving for glutinous food can be so intense that eating a brownie or cupcake produces a feeling analogous to “getting high”.

Children with neurobehavioral disorders typically eat terribly unbalanced diets, often accepting fewer than five foods. In fact, it is difficult with picky eaters to remove gluten from the diet particularly because of its addictive properties. If your child only wants to eat macaroni and cheese, pizza and cupcakes, be suspicious that those foods are triggering an opioid reaction in the brain. We must improve their nutritional state if we are to see any improvements from any biological intervention. Amazingly, notoriously picky eaters will often show an increase in the quantity and types of food they are willing to eat once gluten has been removed.

Similar to drug addiction, parents who remove gluten from the diet often report noting withdrawal symptoms in their children. This comes in the form of erratic behavior, irritability, bizarre preoccupations, self-absorption and inappropriate responses to environment (ie. giggling or crying for no reason). Behavioral changes can be severe, as can physical symptoms. Some parents have reported fevers, diarrhea and vomiting when the children have gone “cold turkey.” For this reason, it’s advisable to remove glutinous products gradually over a period of a few weeks.

Once the addiction to gluten is under control it is much easier to transition toward a more nutrient-dense diet. Your child will be more inclined to try new things because their food desire is no longer based on feeding the opioid response.

It can take 6-8 weeks for the gluten protein to fully leave the body. So once you do completely remove gluten you may continue to see symptoms for a while. Parents around the world have reported significant changes in behavior, attention, language, sociability  and bowel function, once gluten has cleared the system. For some, it can take up to 6 months or more to have noticeable changes, but for others, improvements are noticed within a few days. In our experience, once we completely removed gluten from the diet, we saw significant improvement in behavior in about 2 weeks. Don’t be discouraged if you are not seeing progress right away. Hang in there, the healthier the body is, the more likely it is that gluten will be cleared faster. Stay steadfast with the program and everything will fall into place in due time.


Using Gluten-free Products

You can find gluten-free pasta, bread, cereal, waffles, pancakes, snacks and sweets at natural food stores and many supermarkets. However, do not fall into the habit of using gluten-free convenience foods.  Just because an item is gluten-free doesn’t mean it is healthy for you. Processed food is processed food regardless of its gluten content.

Many gluten-free processed foods are even less nutritious than their gluten-containing equivalent. Refined foods are typically enriched with vitamins and minerals to provide a safety net. However, they are also often loaded with sugar. Read the labels carefully to make sure you are not feeding your child “nutritionally empty” foods.

There are a variety of gluten-free breads on the market today. Because palates differ, I suggest you systematically try them all until you find a brand your child likes. Make a game of it. Blind fold your child and have them sample a few of different breads. See which one is the most pleasing to them.  Save the one they like for sandwiches and use the brands they don’t like for toast. They all pretty much taste the same if you toast them and add nut butter.

I introduced gluten-free bread by toasting it and serving it in the morning when they were the most hungry.  I didn’t even tell them it was gluten-free bread. They noticed it was smaller than the bread they were used to but I just told them I bought a different brand of bread (technically true).  After a week or two, I started using the bread, un-toasted, for their sandwiches.

If you are having trouble transitioning your child to gluten-free bread for sandwiches, initially offer it just once a week for lunch with their favorite lunch meat or nut butter, etc.  Then as they develop the taste for it, gradually make them more sandwiches each week until you are fully gluten-free in the sandwich department.


  1. Anne says

    VERY helpful in understanding some of the symptoms. (Which I have regarding sweets, and have asked more than one doctor aboout my craving. Maybe this is the answer.)

  2. Tammy Hocking says

    When my son was diagnosed at 18 months with PDD-NOS I was driven like never before to fight for my child. I devoured any information I could find. One change we made immediately was his diet. I studied the GF/CF diet and we began within 2 weeks. I was lucky that I had a good eater who would consume any fruit he could get his hands on, and instantly liked and preferred soy milk. It took a few tries to find bread he liked but we did. I began baking and experimenting with different types of flour. With the help of sites like glutenfree.com, I was able to consistently expand his diet. Within a month his verbal skills exploded. And I can happily say he hasn’t stopped! My son went from lining cars and trains all day, every day, to talking, interacting and smiling again. Of course this was not the only avenue we tried, he also started intensive therapy, OT, speech and attending an early intervention program. All of these things contributed to my son gaining back a connection to our world. He is now 9, in a typical class with a paraprofessional and doing exceptionally well. He’s happy, making friends and getting A’s and taking part in talented and gifted programs. His diagnosis has recently been changed to Asperger’s Syndrome. I encourage anyone new to the Autism arena to at least look at it, explore this diet as a tool for your child. More companies are offering gluten and casein free choices. Some of the best we’ve found are….Udi’s, Toffuti, Rice Dream, King Arthur’s flours, Betty Crocker GF line, and Bisquik GF line. I recently asked my son if he would like to experiment with coming off the diet. He looked at me like I had lost my mind and said, “No thank you, I don’t want to stop talking again”. Ok kid enough said!


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