Special Diets May Not Significantly Aid Children With Autism

A child inspects his food at the tableWith 1 in 68 children experiencing an autism-spectrum condition, many parents have turned to lifestyle and nutritional remedies to manage symptoms. A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that parents who rely on supplements and special diets may be wasting their time. In some cases, these nutritional strategies may even be harmful.

Supplements and Special Diets: Not an Autism Panacea

Researchers looked at 368 children treated at five Autism Speaks centers. The children ranged in age from 2 to 11, and had been diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s, or another so-called “pervasive developmental disorder.” Each child’s caregiver maintained a three-day diary tracking food consumption, nutritional supplements, and drinks.

Researchers found that the children consumed nutrients similar to children without autism, and that they had similar nutritional deficiencies to other children. About 55% of children on the autism spectrum were deficient in calcium, with 40% deficient in vitamin D. Though children on gluten-free and casein-free diets—two approaches popular among parents of children with autism—got more vitamin E and magnesium, they were still calcium deficient.

Though children on the autism spectrum are often picky eaters, the study’s authors say these children still get most essential nutrients from their food, since many foods are fortified with minerals and vitamins. Importantly, though, many of the children in the study were getting too much of some nutrients, such as folic acid, vitamin A, and zinc. Getting too much of a vitamin can be just as dangerous as getting too little. Excessive vitamin A consumption, for example, can lead to headaches, dizziness, joint pain, nausea, skin irritation, coma, and death.

Conflict Over Nutrition

This study may be good news for parents who are tired of fighting with their kids over food and supplements. As notoriously picky eaters, children on the autism spectrum may be resistant to try special diets. Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC, a therapist in Seattle, Washington, who works with people on the autism spectrum, says that trying to get kids to eat special diets can add another layer of stress to the challenges of life with autism.

“Parents of children who carry a diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum are faced with many stressors. These include facing the unknowns that the diagnosis carries in the short and long term, learning about autism and sorting out fact from fancy, and managing the family dynamics among siblings. Adding the additional layer of stress by creating special diets and adding special supplements to this mix is an enormous extra burden for parents. It is a natural parental instinct to try to do as much as possible for their children, especially those who carry a diagnosis of any kind that sets them apart from the larger group. But when there is no sound research supporting the use of diet or supplements to improve any outcomes in the case of autism, why not simply continue to provide the entire family with sound nutritional meals, instead of singling out a particular child for a particular menu? Everyone will benefit,” she said.

The study’s authors caution parents that, though their study revealed some nutritional deficits in children with autism, their research does not show that nutritional deficiencies cause autism. Instead, children with autism face nutritional shortcomings similar to other children.


  1. Special diets, supplements not always helpful for kids with autism. (2015, June 5). Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2015/06/05/special-diets-supplements-not-always-helpful-for-kids-with-autism
  2. Vitamin A. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/

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  • Candy


    June 9th, 2015 at 3:53 PM

    This may not be true for all children, I will give you that, but I would also be willing to say that there are a lot of parents out there who have modified the diets of their autistic children and have seen a huge difference in a positive way with their behavior. I have especially heard that cutting grains and gluten can be very helpful. Again, not saying that this is going to work for everyone but if I had a child on the spectrum I think that it would at least be worth trying.

  • Delia


    June 10th, 2015 at 3:05 PM

    I guess that I have never really understood anyway how something genetic in nature(? guessing) like autism could be resolved or helped by something nutritional? I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about this stuff so I am not trying to be belligerent just gain understanding. Thanks

  • julian


    June 12th, 2015 at 11:44 AM

    Whether our child is autistic or not, we have to strive to do the best for them nutritionally that we can. This means fresh fruits and veggies over all of the processed junk that we tend to gravitate toward. This means helping them learn that making healthy food choices is going to be critical to their health both today and later. This is something that most of us as parents want to do a good job with, but have to admit that it can be a struggle at times.

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