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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    A Gluten-Free Diet Does Not Improve Autism Spectrum Disorders

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      A randomized, controlled, single-blinded trial shows no functional differences between in children with autism spectrum disorders who eat a gluten-free diet and those who eat gluten-containing diet. 

    Caption: Image: CC BY 2.0--QUOI Media

    Celiac.com 11/18/2019 - So far, the little research that's been done suggests that a gluten-free diet does not help to improve to improve the functioning of children with autism spectrum disorders. 

    A team of researchers recently conducted a randomized, controlled, single-blinded trial to see if children with autism spectrum disorders showed any difference in functioning on a gluten-free diet compared with a gluten-containing diet.

    The research team included Anna Piwowarczyk, Andrea Horvath, Ewa Pisula, Rafał Kawa, and Hania Szajewska. They are variously affiliated with the Department of Pediatrics with Clinical Assessment Unit at The Medical University of Warsaw in Warsaw, Poland; the Department of Pediatrics at The Medical University of Warsaw in Warsaw, Poland; and the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Psychology, Faculty of Psychology at the University of Warsaw in Warsaw, Poland.

    Their team assessed a total of sixty-six children with autism spectrum disorders, within normal IQ range, above  70, who had been on a gluten-free diet for at least two months before enrollment. 

    After continuing a gluten-free diet for two-months, the gluten-free diet group continued this diet, while the gluten-containing diet group consumed at least one normal meal containing gluten per day for 6 months. 

    At the end of the trial period, the two groups showed no differences in autistic symptoms, maladaptive behaviors, or intellectual abilities. In this study, children with autism spectrum disorders eating a gluten-free diet did not show any significant signs of improved functioning compared with those who ate a gluten-containing diet.

    These results confirm the results of an earlier, similar study from 2015.

    So, the takeaway here is that a gluten-free diet does not improve functionality in patients with autism spectrum disorder.

    Read more at: Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, October 2019

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    There's a major flaw with this study: the researchers who did this study excluded autistic children with celiac disease, autistic children with wheat allergy, and autistic children with "presence of disease influencing behavior, feeding, or growth," which would of course include non-celiac gluten intolerance.

    In other words, they deliberately excluded all the autistic children who would benefit from a gluten-free diet, and then concluded, INCORRECTLY, that autistic children don't benefit from a gluten-free diet.

    This is especially disturbing because it's a major step backwards to the days when parents were told "your autistic child doesn't REALLY have intestinal problems, he's just acting like that because that's what children with autism do."

    Some children with autism benefit from a gluten-free diet.  Some don't.  Why is there an effort to turn it into a yes-or-no question for all children with autism?

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    Guest Father of gluten-free autistic son


    Our son used to act 'high' all the time and smelled of bile all the time because he would regurgitate his food (like Mac and cheese) because his gut, according to the doctor, turned gluten into an opioid.

    We put him on the gluten-free diet and saw no results after 6 months. We decided to persist. After 9 months, we thought we saw

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    Guest Father of gluten-free autistic son



    We thought we saw some small changes.

    It took the FULL YEAR of doing the gluten-free diet before we saw an entirely new boy.

    They did not run the study long enough.

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    I did not read this full study, but unless the children were placed room and monitored by study staff 24 hours a day,  there is no way they can determine whether or not the children were actually gluten free.  Dietary studies, even if randomized, are notorious for collected false information because participants choose not to report accurately.  

    I just had a cousin who participated in a university food study this year.    She cheated and told us she was not going to report the food she ate.  The rest of us were shocked and dismayed.   

    As a celiac, I meet lots of people who think they are actually gluten free, but they make classic mistakes.  I went to Poland a few years ago.   There was very little awareness of celiac disease.  I am sure awareness is improving, and there were some gluten free foods available imported like Germany found in stores.  


    I bet those kids still had access to gluten, most likely due to cross contamination.  It takes most celiacs up to a year to heal because the gluten free diet has a very steep learning curve!  

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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