Autism: 3 Ways to Help Your Child

By Alyssa O'Brien, RD, LD
April 26, 2016


Think back to when you were in school. Did you know anyone with autism? Chances are you may not have even heard of it. Today, there are entire schools dedicated to children with autism spectrum disorders. Nationally, the estimated cases of autism have risen 60 percent in four years. That translates to one in 68 children. With cases of autism on the rise, you or someone you know has likely been impacted by it. Researchers have not yet identified a cause, but as nutritionists, we know that nutrition can be powerful in improving the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.

Maybe you have been thinking for a long time that you want your child to eat better, but you don’t know how that can happen when there are daily tantrums, fights, and challenges surrounding food. Well, you are not alone. Children with autism are five times more likely to have narrow food choices and be picky eaters. The foods that are good for them are often the foods they will not eat. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we know that food can make a huge difference for a child with autism, but it will take time and a lot of patience. Since food can be a sensitive issue for children with autism, it’s okay if changes don’t happen overnight. Remain calm. One of the following small steps today will benefit your tomorrow. It can be a long road, but rest assured that you are on the right track for your child’s health.

#1: Improve intestinal health

If cravings for processed foods, candy, soda, or chicken nuggets are a daily battle, you might be surprised to find out that those cravings originate in the intestinal tract. So, when it comes to making some headway with healthy foods, you have to start by healing the intestines.

Start with probiotics, like bifidobacteria, several times a day. This gives the intestines healthy bacteria and pushes out the bad stuff that causes cravings and determines food preferences.

It’s not uncommon that a child with autism has a damaged intestinal lining. What’s interesting is that both children with autism and their families have been found to have the same type of damage to their intestines. That means that the recommendations for children with autism might help the whole family feel better as well.

Once the cravings quiet down, it’s time for more small changes.

#2: Take small steps introducing healthier foods

Time and time again, we hear testimonies of how food choices have made a huge difference for someone with living with autism. When food starts to help the child heal, mood and behavior are improved, and there is less fear surrounding different foods. Life gets a little easier, especially at mealtimes.

Nutrition can be helpful for autism in more than just one way. In addition to the use of probiotics, often persistent intestinal issues, like constipation, reflux, or food sensitivities can be relieved with simple nutritional changes. When children are constipated, they are not in a very good mood, or they might act out, which might be a sign they are uncomfortable. Small steps you can take:

  1. Autism_HappyYoungChild-Smoothie.jpgIntroduce more fiber: Fiber from vegetables can be pureed into other foods to ease constipation.
  2. Encourage more fluids: Let your child pick out a fun water bottle to make drinking water, instead of sugary soda, more interesting.

Often, eating foods that a child is sensitive to will cause symptoms to flare up. How will you know if your child has food sensitivities?

  1. With autism, common offenders are grains and dairy. Research shows major benefits in autism symptoms from a grain- and dairy-free diet. Once grains and dairy are out of the diet, you may notice behavior changes in your child. He/she will feel better and might be more willing to respond and try more new foods.
  2. Food additives like artificial colorings, sweeteners and chemicals might need to be eliminated as well.

#3: Consider adding a zinc supplement

What if your child is never hungry? Lack of appetite might mean a low zinc level. Adding a little zinc to your child’s water bottle can help tremendously.

Changes the whole family can benefit from

Autism_HealthyFamilyDinner.jpgI hope you find the above suggestions helpful to try if you have a child with autism. Further, I hope you consider the changes for yourself (if you haven’t already) and your entire family. Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone to eat the same thing anyway? Eating real foods like chicken and beef, butter and avocado, and vegetables and fruits allows the body to heal. These real foods support the intestinal tract, keep the immune system strong, and bring down inflammation. All of which have shown to help the brain work better and reduce the symptoms of autism.

Our nutritionists have helped many children with autism, and we have witnessed how nutrition changes lives. If you have a child with autism, it can be beneficial to meet with a nutritionist one-on-one to talk about specific needs and food challenges. We can help your family on this journey to wellness so that your days are filled with more rewards than struggles. With one step at a time, we will work together to come up with solutions for the unique needs of your child.

For more information, listen to this podcast on the topic of autism.

About the author

Alyssa has personally experienced the radical improvements that nutrition has on cholesterol levels, anxiety, anemia, energy and more. These experiences inspire her to support others to make real changes with real food in order to be happy and healthy with themselves and those around us. Alyssa is a registered dietitian and licensed through the Minnesota Board of Nutrition and Dietetics. She received her B.S. in dietetics from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Then she completed the Mid-Willamette Valley Dietetic Internship in Oregon.

View all posts by Alyssa O'Brien, RD, LD

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