Study Will Examine If Diet Can Ease Autism Symptoms

By Virginia Linn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For years, parents of autistic children have seen a difference in how their kids behaved after they followed diets free of dairy and wheat products or that restricted their sugar intake.

Their children were more alert and had better eye contact, they
claimed. There was more social interaction and interest in the world
around them.

Whether there is any scientific basis to these claims will be tested
in a three-year study beginning in November at Children’s Hospital of
Pittsburgh. It will look at the effectiveness of three alternative
therapies: use of a supplement known as omega-3 fatty acid (the healthy
oil found in some fish and flaxseed); a diet free of wheat and milk protein,
and a diet that restricts sugar.

Dr. Michelle Zimmer, a pediatrician in the Child Development Unit at
Children’s, said there is no concrete biological evidence to show these
diets have any impact on children with autism, a lifelong neurological and
developmental disorder.

“But so many parents were coming in saying anecdotally that these
were helpful,” she said. “We wanted to find out more.” The study, funded
through the Emmerling Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation, hopes to enroll 80
children between the ages of 30 and 54 months who recently have been diagnosed with autism.

Researchers sought input from psychiatrists, psychologists and parents as they planned the study.

One of those who helped shape the study was Laura Hewitson of Pine,
a researcher at Magee-Womens Hospital who has a 5-year-old son with autism.

Shortly after Joshua’s diagnosis at age 2, she jumped on the Internet to find out as much as she could about the disorder. Information about dietary and nutritional supplements kept popping up. Her son, she recalled, also had experienced a lot of colds, ear infections and diarrhea.

“Our son at the time was addicted to cow’s milk, cheese on toast,
French fries and chicken nuggets,” she said.

She and her husband, Dan Hollenbeck, decided to cut out the dairy to
see if that would ease his digestive problems.

“There were really quite dramatic changes in him,” she said. “He
began looking with more purpose. He started to do basic puzzles. There was
nothing miraculous, but it seemed almost like he was coming out of a fog.”

Then they removed the wheat products and saw more improvements, including an easing of digestion problems. “For the first time he was looking at the environment and exploring.” She believes there is a subset of children diagnosed with autism with compromised immune systems that make them sensitive to certain foods.

“It appears to be a common thread among a subset of children.”

Hewitson, who founded the organization Fighting Autism, helped sponsor a
presentation this past weekend at Magee on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet,
an eating plan that goes beyond therapies being researched in the
Children’s study. It advocates removing most complex sugars and starches from the diet to ease a variety of ailments.

In the Children’s study, participants will be assigned randomly to
one or more of the various diets. Each patient would follow the special diets
for three to six months. Their blood would be tested and behavior
monitored to look for changes in language ability, eye contact, physical interaction and repetition of words or particular movements.

If improvements are tied to diet, researchers hope to seek federal
funding to conduct a larger study.

“We’re hoping it will help us understand autism better,” Zimmer said.

Those interested in participating in the study should call 412-692-8404.

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