Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a common developmental disability that has a growing incidence. ASD is characterised by persistent deficits in social interactions and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. Unfortunately, the world does not have a suitable response to ASD. The United States Food and Drug Administration has recognised only two drugs for its treatment – Risperidone and Aripiprazole. But these work on the associated behavioural problems and not the underlying cause of ASD. In addition, these drugs have disturbing side-effects such as weight gain and sedation.
In recent years, studies have associated ASD with the state of strong inflammation. Inflammation is our body’s way of fighting protein-based invaders. Autism begins in the womb, and it has been postulated that consuming processed foods during pregnancy increases the chances of the condition. Gut disorders are one of the most common problems associated with autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that children with ASD are three to five times more likely to suffer chronic gastrointestinal disorders.
There are plenty of foods present in our day-to-day diet such as milk, wheat, corn syrup, soy, etc. that increase the complexity of digestion. These food items contain glyphosate, which is the world’s most-used chemical herbicide and thought to be the primary driver of ASD. Glyphosate continues its herbicidal activity within the gut, killing good bacteria and producing toxins in the gut. It also depletes serotonin that plays an important role in our mood, gut health and bowel movements. This is one of the reasons why autistic children tend to have more constipation and diarrhoea.
A research study conducted amongst 70 autistic children had them ingesting a diet free of gluten-casein (present in milk) for 1-8 years. Of these, 81% improved significantly by the third month. The study also showed that children with ASD have low levels of sulforaphane, which is important as it decreases inflammation and promotes antioxidants in the body. Adding cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli sprouts, kale, cauliflower, collards and cabbage to the diet can increase sulforaphane. The research showed that the sulforaphane given to children as supplements reflected only low or moderate improvement, but children who were given broccoli sprouts indicated considerable improvements in terms of communication and social responsiveness.
Another substance that plays a crucial role in our body is Vitamin D, which works more like a hormone than the vitamin it is labelled to be. A deficiency of Vitamin D in early life can alter brain development, decrease body and brain antioxidant ability, and alter the immune system. It also has strong anti-inflammatory effects. Brain function in children with ASD has been shown to improve with Vitamin D supplementation. Vitamin D levels can be increased by adequate exposure to the sun in the morning, adding fortified plant-based milk such as almond milk, rice milk and pea milk in the diet, and adding fortified orange juice and mushrooms. Apart from this, there are various supplements of Vitamin D available in the market that can help maintain an adequate level.
Switching from a regular diet to a plant-based diet decidedly improves the gut health of the children and eases the process of digestion. A diet that contains milk, meat and processed foods takes time to digest and adds to the intensity of ASD. A plant-based diet contains a lot of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, cereals, and legumes. These foods are rich in nutrients, easy to digest and high in fibre, and hence reduce inflammation and improve bowel movement. Children with ASD tend to have limited food preferences and are generally picky when it comes to food. Parents should keep in mind that these diets require careful planning to make sure that the child’s food needs are being met.
Sadly, there is no cure for ASD and no one-size-fits-all treatment. A rich and healthy diet is not only essential for autistic children, but for every child. Even while a majority of diseases can be cured by food, people end up taking medicines for them. A plant-based diet that is rich in fibre, trace elements, vitamins and probiotics can be the answer to ASD, as it can for many other conditions. If changing a child’s diet can significantly constitute a response to ASD, then this approach surely deserves a thought.