Special diets, supplements for autism still a question mark

May 25, 2017 by Amy Norton, Healthday Reporter

(HealthDay)—Parents of children with autism often try diet changes or supplements to ease symptoms of the disorder, but a new review concludes there's no solid evidence that any work.

After analyzing 19 clinical trials, researchers found little proof that dietary tactics—from gluten-free foods to fish oil supplements—helped children with spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Some studies showed positive effects, while others found nothing, the researchers said. Overall, the trials were too small and short-term to draw conclusions one way or the other.

"Even though we don't have documenting safety and efficacy, many—if not most—families of children with ASDs try different diets and nutritional supplements at some point in time," said senior researcher Zachary Warren.

Parents often feel there is at least no harm in trying, according to Warren, an associate professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

But, "that's not always a safe assumption," he said.

"For example, some can actually cause harm in high doses," Warren noted.

He recommended that parents talk to their doctor before changing their child's or adding supplements.

Others agreed.

"It's very important for parents to consult with their child's pediatrician if they are tempted to try a dietary intervention," said Geraldine Dawson. She is director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, in Durham, N.C.

"Since kids with autism are already picky-eaters, it's critical to consider the nutritional impact of any change in the child's diet," she said.

Dawson wrote an editorial that accompanied the study, published online May 25 in the journal Pediatrics.

Thomas Frazier is chief science officer for the non-profit Autism Speaks. He also encouraged parents to talk to their child's doctor about nutrition, including supplements.

Some parents might hesitate to do that, Frazier said, because they feel their doctor will be resistant to those types of approaches. "But that may just be your perception," he noted. "I think it's important to have these conversations."

Everyone also agreed on another point: Larger, "high-quality" studies are needed to know whether certain diets or supplements benefit at least some kids.

Dawson pointed out that "it's hard for to know whether a specific intervention is actually effective unless it's been carefully studied. Parents deserve to have answers so they know how best to spend their time and money."

The new review findings were based on 19 clinical trials Warren's team dug up in a search of the medical literature. The studies were small, including anywhere from 12 to 92 kids, and they typically lasted less than six months.

Several studies looked at whether made a difference in children's language abilities, behavior or social skills.

There was no clear evidence of a benefit, Warren's team said. In a couple of trials, kids given a placebo (an inactive substance) showed bigger improvements than those on omega-3 supplements.

According to Dawson, it's been found that up to 30 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders "respond" to placebos—highlighting how important well-controlled studies are.

Some other trials tested supplements—such as digestive enzymes and methyl B-12—with mixed results. One study, for example, found that digestive enzymes seemed to improve kids' digestive symptoms and behavioral issues, while another found no benefit.

As for diet, several studies examined gluten-free/casein-free diets—which are commonly advocated for kids with autism. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley; casein is a milk protein.

Again, Warren's team found the results were mixed. Plus, the studies that did find a benefit were less rigorously done, the researchers said.

It is inherently tricky to study the role of diet changes or supplements in managing autism spectrum disorders, according to Warren.

The disorders are complex and vary widely from one person to another: One child might have milder problems with communication and , while another might be profoundly affected—speaking little, if at all, and getting wrapped up in repetitive, obsessive behaviors.

So it's possible, Warren said, that a dietary approach could benefit certain children, but not others.

It will take larger, "well thought-out" trials to get clearer answers, Warren said.

Frazier agreed. "We know ASDs are not just 'one thing,' " he said. "We need more information on whether there are subgroups of children who might be more responsive to a given ."

In the United States, roughly one in every 68 children has been diagnosed with an , according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts believe that a mix of factors make certain vulnerable—including genetics and certain environmental exposures during early .

Explore further: Treat autism even before symptoms show?

More information: Zachary Warren, Ph.D., associate professor, pediatrics, psychiatry and special education, Vanderbilt University, Nashville; Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, director, Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Thomas Frazier, Ph.D., chief science officer, Autism Speaks, New York City; May 25, 2017, Pediatrics, online

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on autism spectrum disorders.

Related Stories

Treat autism even before symptoms show?

May 11, 2017
(HealthDay)—Treating emerging signs of autism in young babies who are at high risk for the disorder helped improve their attention, language, communication and social skills, preliminary research shows.

Vitamin D supplements may benefit children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

November 21, 2016
Vitamin D supplementation improved symptoms of autism in a recent trial.

Gluten-free, casein-free diet may help some children with autism

February 29, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- A gluten-free, casein-free diet may lead to improvements in behavior and physiological symptoms in some children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to researchers at Penn State. ...

As kids' weight climbs, power of healthy fat supplements drops

April 5, 2017
Body weight plays a significant role in how much benefit children may get from consuming "good" fats, new research suggests.

Is dietary supplementation appropriate for children with autism spectrum disorder?

June 4, 2015
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are often picky eaters, which can lead parents to suspect that their children might not be getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. This sometimes leads parents of children ...

Recommended for you

Genes contribute to biological motion perception and its covariation with autistic traits

January 22, 2018
Humans can readily perceive and recognize the movements of a living creature, based solely on a few point-lights tracking the motion of the major joints. Such exquisite sensitivity to biological motion (BM) signals is essential ...

Nearly imperceptible fluctuations in movement correspond to autism diagnoses

January 17, 2018
A new study led by researchers at Indiana University and Rutgers University provides the strongest evidence yet that nearly imperceptible changes in how people move can be used to diagnose neurodevelopmental disorders, including ...

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

Being bilingual may help autistic children

January 16, 2018
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently ...

No rise in autism in US in past three years: study

January 2, 2018
After more than a decade of steady increases in the rate of children diagnosed with autism in the United States, the rate has plateaued in the past three years, researchers said Tuesday.

Autism therapy: Brain stimulation restores social behavior in mice

December 13, 2017
Scientists are examining the feasibility of treating autistic children with neuromodulation after a new study showed social impairments can be corrected by brain stimulation.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.