Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
Allergy Unit

Student research

A Whole New World:
Diet Modification in Children with ASD
An in-depth qualitative study

Andrea Mae (Andee) Alano
Master of Nutrition and Dietetics, The University of Sydney
Supervisors: Velencia Soutter, Anne Swain
October 2006

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Introduction: There has been considerable interest on the effect of diet on individuals with ASD, but in the absence of large randomly controlled clinical trials, diet modification is still classified as a complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapy. The implementation of a modified diet among children with ASD has been increasing, however at present there is minimal research on the factors involved in the management of such diets.

Aims: To investigate parental beliefs regarding ASD and diet. Particularly, to explore the experiences, long term outcomes, and problems that may come about with diet modification, as well as to discover parents’ views on what is needed to manage these diet modifications.

Methods: This qualitative study used in-depth interviews as the primary tool for data collection. To achieve the aims of the study, topics covered in the interviews included the child’s current or previous diet/s, the parent’s sources of information and support, any lifestyle changes made, and their opinions on what was necessary to successfully manage a modified diet. All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Key concepts and themes were identified from the transcripts and a framework for coding the data was developed. Analysis was done using qualitative analysis techniques.

Results: A total of 20 in-depth interviews with parents of children with ASD were conducted. It was found that parents modified their child’s diet to resolve some behaviour issues (65%) and GI issues (50%). The majority of parents (80%) reported noticing positive improvements in their children, particularly in behaviour and communication. It was reported that shopping and cooking habits required the most changes. In addition, social functions, an overall lack of support, and their child’s food selectivity were the biggest difficulties encountered. Parents also reported that being organized and perseverance were the main means used to successfully implement a diet.

Conclusion: This study has established that parents have found diet modification as a challenging experience to take on, however due to the observed improvements in their children, most have found that the benefits outweigh the difficulties. Parents believe that an increase in support systems (both emotional and educational) will be beneficial in the future management of a modified diet.