Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
Allergy Unit

Student research

Food Intolerance and Dietary Modification in Children
with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Georgina Latimer
Master of Nutrition and Dietetics, The University of Sydney
Supervisors: Velencia Soutter, Anne Swain
November 2003

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Background: Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encompasses a range of developmental disorders, characterised by a triad of symptoms including impaired social interaction skills, communication skills and symbolic or imaginative play. The aetiology of ASD is complex and not yet well understood. Amongst others, diet is one factor implicated as potentially causative in ASD. Gluten-free and casein-free diets have been reported to result in improvements in the symptoms of ASD. Absence of these dietary proteins alone cannot be conclusively said to be the cause of these improvements, as removing foods containing casein and gluten from the diet is also likely to result in an altered intake of other food chemicals. It appears that parents turn away from conventional medical practitioners and seek advice on dietary modification from alternate sources, possibly because of a lack of support from the medical profession.

Objective: To document the food intolerances and symptoms observed in children with ASD, as well as the efficacy and sustainability of dietary modification in those children with ASD who have food intolerances.

Design: Children with ASD were compared with milk intolerant children and children with neither ASD nor food intolerance in a questionnaire based study. Issues examined include symptoms potentially related to food intolerance, any history of adverse reactions to foods or dietary modification and the impact of the children on their families.

Results: The children with ASD exhibited a number of behavioural and gastrointestinal symptoms, which may relate to food intolerance. These symptoms generally began early in life, before abnormal/ASD behaviours and persisted into the present in many cases. Dietary modification had taken place in 100% of the children with ASD and was currently in place for 87.50%. A range of foods were reported as responsible for adverse reactions and many different symptoms were improved with dietary modification.

Conclusion: A group of children with ASD exhibiting symptoms of food intolerance to a range of foods has been described. Dietary modification was generally effective and sustainable in these children. Continued research is needed to further elucidate the role and prevalence of food intolerance in children with ASD.