Special Diets for Autism, PDD and ADHD

Children with a diagnosis or suspected diagnosis of autism, PDD and ADHD can benefit tremendously from special diets.  The research is split on whether or not dietary intervention is beneficial.  One of the biggest reasons why is that special diets decrease the inflammation flooding into the body.  Since developmental issues like autism, PDD and ADHD are based in dysregulation of inflammation, it is essential to identify foods that are contributing to the load.

The digestive tract is responsible for regulating inflammation and special diets work for kids by helping to protect and repair gut tissue.  Some children with autism and ADHD do not respond to special diets without having additional gut support in the form of essential fatty acids, anti-microbials and probiotics.


GFCF – Gluten Free Casein Free

Children with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD have been shown to have elevated levels of gluten, gliadin and casein peptides in their urine.  Casein is a protein in dairy and can be found in all dairy products.  Gluten is actually made up of many proteins.  Wheat is the only grain considered to contain “true gluten”. Gliadin and glutenin the two main groups of proteins in gluten and are found in many grains including wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut.  Gliadin is the protein that causes problems in children with ASD and is generally referred to as “gluten”.  Gluten is in EVERYTHING, even popsicles and stickers!

GFCF diet takes time.  Benefits are a result of removing foods that damage the digestive tract and also actively healing the digestive tract.  Most patients on the GFCF diet also benefit from removing soy and corn, making it the GFCFSFCF diet.

This important research about allergenic proteins has changed the lives of many children with developmental disorders.  The gluten free casein free diet has the potential to benefit in a number of different ways.  All relate to the digestive tract.  Removing gluten and casein can benefit children by addressing:

  • Food allergy – IgG mediated immune reaction to food
  • Food sensitivity – creates inflammation
  • Dysbiosis – imblance of healthy microorganisms  (probiotics) in the digestive tract
  • Inflammation
  • Opiate or drug effect on the brain from incomplete breakdown of gluten

Benefits of dietary intervention including GFCF (SFCF)  include:
  • Increased speech and/or language use including increases in effort to speak, number of words spoken, complexity of sentences and conversational speech
  • Improved social interaction including increased interest in peers and siblings, initiation of play, appropriate use of toys and improved tolerance in larger groups
  • Decreased self-stimulating and self-injurous behaviour
  • Increased ability to focus and enhancement of cognitive function
  • Improved digestion, sleep and immune function
  • Increased awareness or “being present”


SCD or GAPS diet – Specific Carbohydrate GAPS Diet

The Specific Carbohydrate diet was created by Elaine Gottschall, B.A., M.Sc, after her courageous journey to help her daughter with Ulcerative Colitis.  Her book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle.  The Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet (GAPS) diet is based on the SCD and was designed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride.  The basics and benefits of the SCD and GAPS diet are outlined below and referred to simply as THE DIET.

The diet is based on the theory that many disorder, including autism and ADHD, are caused by imbalance in the microflora or probiotics of the digetsive tract.   In autism, we know that genetic predisoposition plays an important role combined with environmental triggers.  Dysbiosis may be one of many triggers in ASD and also has tremendous treatment potential by re-populating an imbalanced gut.

When the balance of the gut is disturbed, overgrowth of microbes creates inflammation.  This situation is similar to a sprained ankle.  There is swelling that puts pressure on all the cells in the area.  Swelling in the digestive tract allows material from the digestive tract to escape.  This is often described as “leaky gut”.   Harmful or undesirable microbes can also migrate to the small intestine where they compete for nutrients and disrupt digestion by damaging enzymes needed to break down food (like GLUTEN, CASEIN, SOY AND CORN).

Carbohydrates, that are not completely digested, stay in the digestive tract and become “food” for unhealthy microbes.  As the microbes digest the leftover carbohydrates, the fermentation damages the digestive tract.  It also causes digestive symptoms and nutrient deficiencies such as:

  • mucous
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • gas and bloating
  • “itchy bum”
  • rashes
  • pain
  • B12 and folic acid deficiency


The Diet

The diet is based on the theory that specifically selected carbohydrates are easy to digest.  Easy digestion leads to better absorption and no leftovers for potentially harmful microbes to cause damage.  As the food supply for the microorganisms decreases, harmful byproducts also decrease, freeing the intestinal surface to begin to heal.  Malabsorption is replaced by absorption. Increased absorption of B12 and folic acid supports gut repair, methylation cycle and detoxification capacity.

Simple carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, honey and yogurt (I DO NOT recommend yogurt as a source of good bacteria initially because of severe enzyme damage, opiate effect of casein and high rate of IgG allergy to dairy).  More complex carbohydrates include lactose, sucrose, maltose and isomaltose, starches and grains.  The diet mainly consists of meat, vegetables, healthy fats and easy to digest fruits.  These foods should be free of preservatives, dyes and other chemicals found in processed foods.  Ideally food should be organic, free range and free of antibiotics.


Low phenol

Many individuals with autism, PDD and ADHD have faulty sulfation and, therefore, cannot process phenols properly.  This diet reduces phenols in the diet.  In most cases, doing the Feingold Diet.  It is also important to support the detoxification with supplements and substances that help transulfation.  Enzymes are needed to help break down remaining phenols.  There is no way to eliminate 100% of all phenols, so this diet is not an all or nothing program.  Some children may need to be keep phenols very low, while others may only need to reduce phenols by avoiding the high phenol foods such as apples and grapes.  This diet is often used in conjunction with other diet protocols.

Symptoms of phenol intolerance: 

  • Dark circles under eyes, red face/ears
  • Diarrhea
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsivity, aggression
  • Headache, head banging and / or self-injury
  • Impatience
  • Short attention span
  • Difficulty falling asleep, night waking for several hours
  • Inappropriate laughter
  • Hives
  • Stomach aches
  • Bedwetting and day wetting
  • Dyslexia, speech difficulties
  • Tics and some forms of seizures

When to use this diet can be hard to determine.  There is no test to identify faulty sulfation.  As I have mentioned, I use several factors to make this determination:

  • reaction to phenolic foods
  • reaction to Tylenol or acetaminophen and artificial ingredients
  • levels of sulfate in the blood and urine
  • test results from phase II liver panel and sulfation capabilities
  • family history of neurological disorders including autism spectrum disorder

* If self-injurious behavior is present, I recommend implementation of a low phenol diet, especially if a GFCF diet has been implemented with no relief* 


The Body Ecology Diet

The Body Ecology Diet incorporates excellent principles of proper food combining, acid/alkaline balance with low acid-forming foods, low/no sugars and starches, easily digestible foods, fermented foods, and other solid nutrition recommendations to rebuild the body’s internal ecosystem.


The Feingold Diet

The Feingold diet is a food elimination program developed by Ben F. Feingold, MD to treat hyperactivity. It eliminates a number artificial colours and flavours, aspartame, petroleum based preservatives and certain salicylates.  Dr. Feingold was a pediatrician and allergist, and was considered a pioneer in the fields of allergy and immunology.  He served as Chief of Pediatrics, Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, Los Angeles, CA.  Dr. Feingold later established a number of allergy centers for Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, and served as Chief of Allergy at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco.Many studies show that 70% of AD/HD children benefit from the removal of additives, especially when salicylates or allergens are removed.