This blog post is dedicated to all those ‘autism parents’ out there who have been told that their child will never improve. To those who want to find ways to help their children without prescription medications, and those who found that medications didn’t work. I hope it gives you all hope. xx
How individualised nutrition can help every child on the autism spectrum
Most of you who know me will be aware that I work with children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) – in fact it is one of my main practice areas as a clinical nutritionist. Occasionally I am asked how I treat these children, and based on the glassy-eyed look people get as I attempt an answer, I’m pretty certain that most of the people who ask me that, are expecting a much simpler answer than I give. But comparing one child on the autism spectrum to another is like comparing apples and oranges, so there are no simple answers.
I think this comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what autism is.
It is not a disease. It is not like an infection where you pop a pill to kill the germ and you’re all good to go. There is no equation: “this condition needs that medicine and bingo it goes away.” No. More than in perhaps any other condition, children (and adults, for that matter) with ASD are as different from each other as chalk from cheese. There is no one cause for autism.
In fact if they ever find one environmental, dietetic or other factor that is common to every person with autism I will eat this blog post.
Neither is there any one proven treatment – but despite this, there is one thing that can help every child with ASD, and that’s nutrition. For those of you who are now scratching your heads, let me explain.
The tale of two bad attitudes: finger pointing and fatalism.
There seems to be two main attitudes towards ASD (and for that matter, other nervous system disorders like depression, anxiety, OCD and mental illness.)
The first attitude is stigma, lack of understanding and victim-blaming. This is not a common attitude towards other illnesses, but it is common with conditions that affect people’s behaviour, moods and thoughts.
If you have a headache – “Oh you poor thing – why don’t you take a painkiller to feel better?”.
If you have asthma – “Are you ok? Do you need me to help you get your puffer?”
But if a child with autism can’t control their anxiety and has a meltdown in the middle of the supermarket, there’s no thought for the fact that this person is having a physical event outside of their control just like the headache or the asthma attack. Somehow, people think that ‘they just need to get a hold of themselves’. Or worse, ‘they need a smack’. Blame the child. Blame the parents. It’s for this same reason that people with depression can often be told to ‘just snap out of it’. How unhelpful.
Thankfully society has managed to overcome some of this stigma, and it’s improving all of the time. More and more people are coming to understand that the child having the meltdown really does have a neurological problem and she cannot help expressing herself in that way right now.
But here we have to be careful, because sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and people get fatalistic about the potential to help people with ASD, as though it was some fixed thing that cannot be influenced positively. Autism becomes a life-sentence of merely ‘coping’ with symptoms or hoping that somehow they will miraculously ‘grow out of it’.
There are many therapies available today that can dramatically improve the way that children and adults with autism experience life. Parents and carers can work with professionals to shape behaviours, learn coping skills, and practice techniques to navigate daily routines. These make a big difference to many children. What can really add punch to these therapies, however, is taking a look at the physical causes of behavioural symptoms and working to counteract them, because behavioural strategies are NOT the only way to influence behaviour.
Behaviour – it’s a brain thing….
Many people don’t seem to understand that our moods, thoughts and behaviours originate in biochemical events in the brain.
So when a child with autism is extremely anxious, cannot form his words clearly or is spontaneously violent for no apparent reason, this is because something undesirable is happening in his brain. Perhaps he has flown into a rage because he has too much adrenaline in his brain and the enzymes that break down adrenaline have stopped working. Perhaps he cannot form words clearly because the signal travelling from his brain to his mouth is interrupted by faulty nerve fibres. Perhaps he cannot calm down from a minor fright because his brain does not make enough of the ‘calm-down chemical’ (GABA, for anyone who wants details).
You’ll note that every one of my last three sentences starts with ‘perhaps’. That’s intentional, and it comes back to my original point.
That is: that every child is different.
Some children will have the exact problems that I mentioned. For others, it will be completely unrelated and have a totally different cause. This is why none of the medical drugs used in autism help every child. And no one drug, nutrient, herb, or other medicine is ever likely to. But when nutritional treatment is targeted at the individual child’s needs, every patient can benefit.
You are what you eat. And so is your brain.
You see, every single event in your brain is governed by nutrients. GABA (to revisit that nerdy detail) can calm you down, or it can be converted into glutamate – which excites the brain and can lead to stimming behaviours like hand-flapping, as well as other symptoms such as bedwetting, or hyperactivity.
On the other hand, if you have too much GABA in your brain and not enough glutamate – you’re going to be a little too calm. Think couch potato. You need the right balance between GABA and glutamate – and what determines if you get this balance right? You guessed it – nutrients. Certain nutrients increase GABA production, others increase glutamate production.
I use this example on purpose as scientific studies have found that children with autism very often have higher-than-normal levels of glutamate in the brain. If we can bring this down and shift it towards GABA production, their behaviour calms and things like stimming and tics can stop altogether. We can do this quite simply by altering what nutrients go into their bodies – we just have to work out what they need and supply it, either through diet or supplementation. Simple, really.
It gets more complicated though – because some children have very high needs for certain nutrients – much higher than other children – and so they have symptoms of deficiency even though they eat enough of that vitamin or mineral. (This might be because they excrete more in their urine, for instance.)
Other children have normal needs, but their gut function is poor so they don’t absorb the nutrients they eat.
Others simply don’t get enough in the diet.
Then there is also the situation where toxins like lead can impair the brain by blocking nutrients from doing their jobs, and cases where there is too much of one nutrient in relation to another. The whole thing is, quite frankly, mind-boggling, and if I didn’t see how this helped people every day I would simply throw up my hands and go to bed rather than try to understand it all.
These complicated biochemical pathways are what I work with every day.
Every child has different brain chemicals that need balancing (there are many more than I listed here – such as serotonin, melatonin, adrenaline, acetylcholine etc etc). Every child needs different levels of different nutrients to balance those chemicals. Their needs are as different from each other as apples and oranges, and yet, I do the same thing for all of them. Yes, you heard me correctly. This is what I do for every patient:
- Find out what nutrients they need
- Supply those nutrients in the most appropriate way
- Find out why they didn’t have enough (or had too much) of those nutrients in the first place
- Prevent that from happening again (where possible)
Sadly, a very large percentage of children with ASD are deficient in one or more key nutrients- often due to picky eating, but also often due to poor absorption from the gut – digestive problems go hand-in-hand with autism in many cases. The good news is that nutritional medicine can make an enormous difference to gut function and sensory issues surrounding food.
The big question is this: How much difference can nutrition make in autism (or depression, anxiety, OCD etc etc)? I will answer in the words of one of my patients’ mums:
“You have made a huge difference with the kids!!!!”
Such satisfying words to hear spontaneously from the mouth of an autism super-mum.
There is hope, and it’s not an easy one-size-fits-all approach. But taking the time to prescribe a targeted approach to give the brain what it needs is so worth the effort. These kids deserve it, and their lives, and the lives of their family members around them, change for the better when we do.
As always, if you or a loved one have symptoms that you haven’t been able to get help with – be they physical, behavioural or emotional – then please consider making an appointment to look at nutritional treatment. Because everyone deserves a shot at an abundant life.