First, I want to say that this is a speculative article. I have no training in medicine or pharmaceuticals, and while I used to be a teacher, I never worked with autistic children. But this also means that I have no vested interests, so I might be able to take a more objective view.And I see that the recent epidemic of childhood-onset autism is mirrored by a similar epidemic of attention deficit disorder. And since scientific studies have shown that food allergies can cause ADD/ADHD, food allergies might also be a cause of childhood-onset autism.
More specifically, in 1974 Dr.Benjamin Feingold, a pediatrician and allergist, published Why Your Child Is Hyperactive, which presented a program to identify and remedy food allergies in children. If your child has a food allergy, you already know it can cause dangerous physical problems. What Dr. Feingold discovered was that food allergies could also cause mental problems. He also discovered that chemical additives could have the same allergic effect.
Although Dr. Feingold’s studies were about ADD/ADHD, in many ways autism is the opposite side of the same coin. Hyperactive children get too excited, while autistic children become too withdrawn. Furthermore, children are developing autism after they start eating solid food.
I was born in 1950 and grew up before preservatives and food additives were commonly used. There were also few fast-food restaurants, and we kids didn’t have much access to heavily sugared and caffeinated drinks. So while we could be squirrelly, no one I knew ever exhibited the kind of ADD/ADHD symptoms I saw when I was teaching in the 1970’s and ’80’s. And I never heard about any child having autism.
I seriously doubt that brain chemistry can change so radically in less than thirty years, so the cause is probably environmental. And what has changed the most in our environment since 1950 is the quality of our food.
So if your child is autistic, why not try the food plan that has been helping children with ADD/ADHD? My version is quite strict, and if it seems too severe to you, I urge you to check out the updated Feingold program at www.feingold.org. I’m not associated with the program in any way, and I’m no longer familiar with the specifics, but it does offer an alternative.
My plan is very simple:
1. No sugar, including corn syrup, fructose, and honey.
2. No caffeine.
3. No additives, including food coloring and natural and artificial flavors.
4. No chemicals, including preservatives, MSG, and artificial sweeteners.
You also need to be very careful with carbohydrates, especially the starchy ones, because our bodies quickly turn them into sugar. I’m not suggesting a low-carb diet – that would be extremely dangerous for a child. Instead, as an antidote, make sure your child eats her carbs with other foods. So if he wants a piece of toast, add some butter or peanut butter or a small piece of cheese. Combine fruit with a little protein as well. (Fruit juice, however, is a non-no, because it has so much sugar.)
As we all know, protein is essential for energy and health, but it’s very hard to digest great globs of it at once. So spread your child’s protein out during the day, with the largest amounts in the afternoon. I know we Americans are used to eating big dinners, but that’s really counterproductive. First we sit for an hour, wiped out while our bodies try to digest all that food, and then we get a jolt of energy, just when we should be winding down and getting ready to go to sleep.
This is particularly rough on small children, who need early bedtimes. So if you can’t give your child her dinner by 6 p.m., arrange for her to have a hearty snack around 4, and then she can eat a very light dinner with you later.
Now we need to talk about food shopping. Over the past few years, food companies have been adding preservatives to everything from bread to mayonnaise. MSG has become increasingly popular as a flavor enhancer, especially when processors cut down on salt, and food coloring and/or preservatives are now used in non-food items like toothpaste and eye drops.
You have to become an additive detective, examining food labels and charts and deducing that if a toothpaste has color and a sweet taste, it’s going to have food coloring and artificial sweeteners in it. Same thing for vitamins and cough syrups and other medicines.
Speaking of vitamins, does your child really need to take them? If he eats a healthy variety of foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables and enough protein, he’s probably getting everything he needs. I’m taller than both my parents were, and I never took vitamins as a child.
You also need to think about fortified foods, especially cereals. If your child is getting enough vitamins and minerals from her food, those extras could cause her to develop unpleasant sensitivities when she gets older.
I’m not a nutritionist, so I urge you to do some research. With the Internet and bookstores and libraries, there’s a wealth of material for you to study. You could also check with your pediatrician, but I want to warn you that doctors get very little training in nutrition. Remember, doctors are human, like the rest of us, and if you have doubts about what they tell you, check it out on your own. (This is a lesson I’ve learned from bitter personal experience.)
We also need to talk about water. The water from your tap has been treated with chemicals to purify it of other chemicals. If you run your cold water for a minute or two, you can usually sniff a metallic scent. So be sure to attach a water purifier to your kitchen faucet and be rigorous about changing the filter regularly.
The large health food store I go to is just like a fancy grocery store, with fresh baked organic bread, organic and conventional produce, a bakery, plenty of frozen food, organic chips and snacks, and even a deli with everything from poached salmon to meats without hormones or antibiotics.
I still read all the labels, though, because most of the frozen and prepared foods have a lot of salt and sugar and fat, even if they don’t have chemicals. I understand that you busy parents don’t always have the time to cook dinner every night, so just be careful about what you buy. And do consider simplifying your meals – you could heat up a frozen casserole you made over the weekend, stir-fry a light meal, or have a salad and sandwiches.
Or your could eat out, just as long as you avoid the fast-food places. They use large doses of salt and sugar and fat to make their food have a taste, and they put preservatives in anything they can, including the buns, ketchup, and dipping sauces. Even if you ordered a salad, there’s still a good chance that they would have sprayed it with a chemical or three to keep the lettuce from wilting. And then the dressing is going to be loaded with chemicals.
Unfortunately, the same thing could be true at a restaurant, since many restaurants buy their food from wholesalers who buy it from the same companies that put the chemicals in the food at your grocery store. So you’re going to have to be careful about where you eat, and you’re going to have to ask a lot of questions about the food.
I realize this sounds like a lot of work for an unproven theory. But taking care of your autistic child is also a lot of work. And since cleaning up your child’s diet can’t cause him any harm, why not give it a try?