It’s important to remember that like fingerprints, every individual with autism is completely different. What might work for one child on the autism spectrum may not work for another. It’s vital that we individualize each diet to work for each individual - I highly stress this in my practice as a dietitian. Many clients will come to me after being told to follow a strict certain “diet for autism” and it’s not working! We know from research (and personal diet experience) that not every diet works for every single person! It’s silly for us to say that the ketogenic diet, the Paleo diet, or GAPS diet (not necessarily pointing fingers, just offering examples) is the “perfect diet” for every single person in the world.. because it’s not.
Autism is completely the same. There are certain strategies we can take that, in combination and individualization, can be extremely helpful for a child with autism.. but it’s not appropriate for us to promise that ONE specific diet is going to work for every child!
Below are some general guidelines to help clean up your child’s diet to set your child up for success. If you’re interested in being guided through individualizing your child’s diet and biomedical testing, you can schedule an appointment with me. This guide will help you get started!
1. Remove all artificial ingredients
Artificial ingredients are man-made chemicals that are difficult for the body to metabolize and excrete. The EWG even says that “natural” ingredients may not be better! “The main difference between a natural and artificial flavor is the origin of the flavor chemicals. Natural flavors must be derived from plant or animal material. Artificial flavors are synthesized in the lab. The actual chemicals in these two kinds of flavors may be exactly the same: the chemical structures of the individual molecules may be indistinguishable.” 
Artificial ingredients include:
Artificial colors and dyes
Other food additives
Bottom line: the fewer ingredients the better! If your child couldn’t pronounce the ingredient, they probably shouldn’t be consuming it. If you are needing alternatives for some of these ingredients, try whole-food dyes or Stevia as a sweetener.
2. Add whole foods into the diet
Out with the processed & refined foods, in with the whole foods! Focus on:
Whole grains (brown rice, multigrain bread, whole grain pasta (or try chickpea pasta for a protein-packed/naturally gluten-free option!)
Vegetables (raw, cooked, any!!)
Fruits (Raw is best! Dried and freeze-dried fruits are great alternatives. If canned, make sure there is no added sugar)
Beans & Legumes (try lentils, beans, vegetarian refried beans, and other protein and fiber-packed options!)
Nuts & seeds (cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, etc)
3. If you eat meat, buy the highest quality possible
Plant-based protein sources are anti-inflammatory and full of fiber! If you do eat meat, try and check off all the following:
No added hormones
Free-range / grass-fed
Lean (stick to white meats and fish; red meat only 1x per week)
4. Choose organic whenever possible
Pesticides & herbicides used on traditional produce not only kill bugs but also kill the bacteria in the gut! If you are dining on a budget, at least buy the following from the “Dirty Dozen” list organic:
Sweet Bell Peppers
If you need to, you can buy non-organic produce for foods on the “Clean 15” (though I recommend using organic all around!)
5. If your child is selective in their diet, start SOS Feeding Therapy
Here is the “how” to getting your child to eat more healthful foods. SOS has been the most successful feeding therapy I’ve used in my practice! You can find an SOS Therapist in your area by using the Practitioner Locator. If there is not one in your area, at the very least get started with Occupational Therapy & Speech Therapy and focus on feeding. Feeding can also be built into Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).
6. Use supplements to boost nutrient intake
I can not stress this enough - reputable brands, products, and accurate dosages are VITAL. Contact me for help with supplement recommendations. General supplements include:
Multivitamin (active B vitamins like 5-MTHF and methylcobalamin (B12) are vital)
Fish Oil (dosage depends on age/weight, though a general guideline is typically 1,000-1500 mg)
Probiotic (dosage depends on age/weight, though a general guideline is to aim above 10 billion CFU)
Digestive Enzymes (broad spectrum or gluten/casein-specific are available)
Iron (many kids are deficient. Take separately from multivitamin)
Herbal complexes (turmeric, olive leaf, and cat’s claw are all great options for fighting dysbiosis/yeast overgrowth)
See my page on supplement regimens for more information (and 10% off!)
7. Trial a dairy- and/or gluten-free diet
Casein - the protein in milk - is very harsh on the digestive system, especially in children with autism. A large majority of the time I see many digestive issues resolve after dairy is removed. Lactaid is not to be used as it still contains casein.
I like to do a gluten-free diet separately from a dairy-free diet as we are able to identify which protein is the issue. While not all kids have massive improvement with a gluten-free diet, I see many who do. Give the trial a full 4-6 weeks.
Many kids with gluten/casein sensitivity will seem to have an addiction… this is common!! When the proteins are broken down, they can attach to the same receptors as opioids! Many times, removing gluten and casein from the diet will cause the child to open up to other foods and start expanding their diet!
8. Minimize added sugars and refined carbohydrates
Too much sugar in the diet is not ideal for children, especially those on the spectrum. Refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, chips, etc) are immediately turned into sugar when digested, therefore also causing an issue. A sudden spike and drop in blood sugar can cause behavioral issues as well.
NOTE: Sugar in fruit is fine as it contains fiber to delay the release of sugar and does not cause the same issues. 3-5 servings of fruit/day is appropriate for most children.
9. Identify foods your child is sensitive to through testing
While gluten and dairy are a good start, there are hundreds of other foods that could be causing an issue. Elimination diets are an option, though I like to think of testing as a “short cut” and is especially helpful in kids with extremely selective diets. My preferred sensitivity testing is the MRT Test which tests for 170 different foods. Beware of buying a traditional food intolerance or allergy panel as they may not be testing the correct antibodies/inflammation markers (most test for IgG only, while MRT tests for IgG, IgA, IgM, and T-Cell reaction!)
10. Test for nutrient deficiencies
It’s common for kids on the autism spectrum to have nutrient deficiencies secondary to a selective diet, malabsorption, or genetic mutations. It’s a great idea to get tested and correct deficiencies which may be causing additional behavioral and cognitive issues. SpectraCell is my lab of choice. We can tailor the child’s diet to correct nutrient deficiencies and build a supplement regimen to complement diet.
Andrews, D. Synthetic ingredients in Natural Flavors and Natural Flavors in Artificial Flavors. Environmental Working Group website. Accessed Deceber 18 2018. LINK.
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