By Sarah Johnson.
Food allergies are very common among children with autism, there is no direct cause behind this. In fact, approximately 76% of children with autism spectrum disorder had at least one gastrointestinal problem vs. 30% in children without1. Researchers know that the avoidance of certain foods benefits the behavior of children with ASD2. The foods that most commonly have negative reactions are gluten (wheat protein) and casein (milk protein).
Since many children with ASD struggle with communication or are nonverbal, knowing the signs and symptoms of potential allergies are very important. Children with ASD who show signs of food allergies commonly have symptoms of:
- Abdominal pain
- Aphotic dermatitis
- Anaphylaxis (severe cases)
As one may note from the list, food allergies can have serve reactions that make life uneasy for children with ASD. Any measures that can be taken to avoid the negative reactions are crucial.
The child may also have symptoms that are harder to recognize, such as behavioral changes. They may become more avoidant or seem a little different. They may also be more extreme than usual and have temper tantrums following certain foods/meals.
A more in-depth list of these behavior changes are:
- Being more irritable.
- Displaying hyperactivity.
- Falling into repetitive behaviors.
- Having difficulty focusing or paying attention.
- Having trouble sleeping.
A common allergic reaction appearing more among children with autism is eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). This inflammation causes changes to the esophagus, the part of the throat that leads to the stomach. A type of white blood cell called an eosinophil accumulates in that organ, causing chronic inflammation.
Symptoms of EoE include:
- Acid reflux that does not respond to medication.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Food getting stuck in the esophagus called an impaction.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Abdominal pain.
- Chest pain.
- Refusal to eat due to discomfort or pain.
- Poor appetite.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Failure to thrive.
It’s very important to stress that these findings are not conclusions, just guides behind where future research may be taking us. For now, we know that children with ASD mostly struggle with food allergies, specifically wheat and casein. The best practice is to avoid the foods that cause negative reactions from your child with ASD. As always, speak to your child’s doctor about any food allergies you notice and what help is available to prevent a negative reaction.
1Khakzad, Mohammad Reza et al. “The evaluation of food allergy on behavior in autistic children.” Reports of biochemistry & molecular biology vol. 1,1 (2012): 37-42.
2 Xu G, Snetselaar LG, Jing J, Liu B, Strathearn L, Bao W. Association of Food Allergy and Other Allergic Conditions With Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children. JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(2):e180279. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0279