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Autism Awareness Month Week 2: Food Therapy

Editor’s note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

The gut-brain connection has been studied for years but only recently have researchers been able to make a clear connection to those with autism. Nutrition is a big factor with the healthy development of the brain in children. Dr. Robert Melillo, founder of Brain Balance Achievement Centers stated; “Nutrition for adequate development of the body and brain requires a mix of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids and complex carbohydrates.”

I have always believed in the gut-brain connection especially when I was diagnosed Celiac 13 years ago and needed to make a major shift in my diet regime. I immediately noticed a difference in my brain, thoughts and moods when I removed gluten from my diet. So, when my son was diagnosed with Level I Autism/Aspergers high functioning, I knew food therapy would be beneficial for him too. I was lucky and caught it early enough to introduce foods to his diet that he didn’t throw at me, but I also know what it is like when he would only eat grilled cheese for months on end. Luckily, my son liked broccoli and salads from day one so that helped.

Researchers at RMIT University found the same gene mutations in the brain and gut in those with autism. This key discovery confirms a gut-brain nervous system link in autism, opening a new direction in searching for treatments for those suffering. It can also help with behavioral issues association with autism by eliminating certain foods that inflame the gut and thus inflame the brain.

What researchers discovered is that 90% of those with autism also suffer from gut issues and this can severely impact their day to day living. They found that gastrointestinal problems may stem from the same mutations in genes that are responsible for brain and behavioral issues. The mutation will affect the communication by modifying the connection between neurons. What they found is that the mutation affected the number of neurons in the small intestine; the sped that food moves through this area; gut contractions and responses to a key neurotransmitter in autism.

This research has opened up development of therapies specific to healing the gut and working on the neurotransmitters there while then connecting to those in the brain. Future research is also being led in investigating how gene mutations in the nervous system relate with microbes in the gut. What researchers are looking at is how they could tweak the microbes in the gut to help improve mood and behavior connected to the brain. This would make a real difference in the quality of life for people with autism as well as for their families.

So what does this mean for those with autism? It means that by changing their dietary intake of specific foods they may see a difference in how their brain processes things that happen to them on a daily basis. Creating a nutrient dense and nutrient-rich foods they will feed the body, gut and brain giving it a healthy dose of love and limiting the inflammation in the gut.

Here are some examples of foods to add into your child’s regime if they have neurobehavioral issues:

· Foods High in Omega 3 Fatty Acids: This includes tuna, broccoli, salmon, walnuts, avocado, and spinach, among others.

· Foods High in Folate: Sprouts, Asparagus, Beans, broccoli, spinach, and kale are good examples.

· Foods High in Fiber: These include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables.

Like I said earlier, I was lucky to catch this early in my child and he enjoys salmon, broccoli, and spinach. He also likes green leafy salads, whole grains and fruits. I did end up doing mostly dairy free with him and gluten free as well as limit his sugar intake. It helped tremendously and he can tell the difference if he has had too much sugar. Those foods are known to create negative reactions in the brain like agitation, aggression, frustration and anger. They inflame their gut system and when that system is inflamed it can cause negative behaviors, physical symptoms and learning challenges. I did have to add shredded cheese to his broccoli, but that’s fine. Do what you need to do to help them get the nutrients of those veggies.

I would like to offer some mealtime tips for those of you with autistic children who have eating challenges. Making the choice to eat clean is a great decision for your child, but you will also reap the benefits. This is a lifestyle change and will benefit you and your family for a very long time.

Some children with autism may have other medical issues that can make eating unpleasant which is why they can be so picky. Rule out any physical issues with your child. Do they have jaw or teeth issues that make chewing hard? Do they get acid reflux or heartburn easily? Do they have constipation on a regular basis? Make sure you talk with your child’s doctor to let them know what you are thinking of doing regarding their diet. They may also have some great tips for you.

Tip #1: Take the Anxiety out of mealtimes. Many children with autism can have great anxiety as mealtime comes closer. They know they should be “normal” and eat their lunch or dinner like the others, but in their mindset, it just doesn’t taste good to them. They can get their anxiety up because sitting still at a dinner table is hard for them and they are afraid they will be punished for not being to sit with the family. Fear and anxiety can increase their bodies “fight or flight” response and is a powerful way to shut down hunger. In order to reverse this pattern it is key to spend some time with your child and relax them before meal times. You can spend five minutes with them doing a quick breathing technique; inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of two and exhale for a count of four. This can help both of you be able to sit down peacefully and with a calm central nervous system so you can truly enjoy the meal. Another fun activity is to allow your child to spend five minutes blowing bubbles or pinwheels before each meal. They can also do a little progressive relaxation technique by tensing up muscles in their legs or arms for a count of five and then releasing them. They can repeat that as many times as they need to in order to feel relaxed and less agitated.

Tip #2: Enjoy family time at the dinner table. It has been researched and researched and the results are the same; it is so important for a family to eat together in a routine as much as possible. Environmental cues and structure help children on the spectrum. This is how they learn that the dinner table is a happy, healthy and fun place to share a meal. For example, a child’s bed is their environmental cue for sleeping as the bathtub/shower is an environmental cue for good hygiene. The dinner table is that cue for eating healthy. Children are wired to copy others and if you are a good role model they will see how to create this habit and routine.

You can start this process small. Offering them a reward if they stay at the table for one minute, three minutes, five minutes and so on. Turn off all distractions like the television, radio and create a rule as to no tech devices at the table. With praise and gentle reminders along with some rewards you can retrain their brain to understand that proper behavior when eating a meal. Increasing the idea of comfort when eating will help them understand that they can eat with you and enjoy that time. It took my son awhile before he would stop pacing and actually eat. What worked for us was to have one night a week where we would “break the rules” and have dinner while we watched our favorite movie. Truth be told, I liked this too and now that he is 18 we still do that. Routine is key, so try your best to have all your meals at the table and everyone sits in their chairs each night and try to keep the mealtimes at the same time every day.

Tip #3: Introduce new foods gradually. Believe it or not, some children with autism have fears around certain foods, even if they’ve never tried them or even have seen them before. Just like the fear of a spider or snake, fear of food can have the same affect on the brain of your child. Appreciate their fear and reassure them that you would keep them safe and not allow a food to harm them. If they are afraid of a fruit or vegetable because of how it looks have them just look at it for a few minutes. Have them touch it using a fork for a few minutes and then move to having them touch it with a paper towel and finally touching it with their fingers and then holding it in their hands and describing the texture. Gradually exposing them to the foods that they fear will help them gain a kinder appreciation for the foods and understand that even if they look weird they are still okay and can be healthy for you. Again, their brain processes that kiwi much differently than your brain… be patient and kind when doing this process and praise and reward every little step they get closer to not fearing that piece of food.

Tip #4: Make little changes gracefully. It is key to start expanding on what your child eats with some new options. If your child will only eat spaghetti with butter, try using a fettuccine noodle one day and explain how it was flattened by a chef to try something new. Be creative and silly to see if you can get them to see the silly in changing up the type of pasta. Try the veggie pastas that are green or colored. It took my son many years to like red sauce. He liked his pasta with olive oil and parmesan and that was it. Now he has expanded and will eat pretty much anything, except spicy- he still hasn’t developed that palette yet. Be patient and kind. This is a big step for them in their minds and it may be scarier than what you think. Let them know that you would not steer them wrong in eating healthy foods. Encourage them to be brave and try something new every day. Reward them for even smelling the different food and really reward them for tasting it.

Tip #5: Take foods out of their boxes or containers. Children with autism can get fixated on pictures, colors and brands and will insist on only eating a specific mac and cheese or a particular chicken nugget and if they don’t see the familiar box they can have a breakdown. Eliminate the melt-down by removing everything from their boxes. If you need the box for the instructions, keep it handy in the pantry, but don’t let your child see it. This will eliminate a lot of wasted time, energy and money trying to find the exact thing your child will eat. Use clear containers and rotate brands as much as possible so your child doesn’t get too use to a certain one. They can be very sensorial and like specific tastes or textures, so make sure you keep mixing it up as much as possible.

Tip #6: Be okay with being messy. Encourage your child to learn through playing with their food. If you want to introduce a new food to your child create a game out of it and let them know that you are going to have them try a new food, but we get to be messy in the kitchen with it. Have them use their senses with the food. Encourage them to smell it and tell you what they detect. Have them touch it and describe it. Have them put it to their ear and see if it makes a sound (hopefully it doesn’t, but it can help a child realize that food is not alive to hurt them) and lastly have them smash it in their fingers and hands (washing hands prior of course). Finally, have them try it by taking a tiny taste and letting it linger on the tongue and explain what sensation they have or describe what it tastes like. You can even use cookie cutters or have them make the food into shapes. Let them know this is a great time to become creative in trying new things. Remind them that it is good for the brain to try new things and for the belly and heart for living.

Tip #7: Keep your cool and concentrate on the food. Many children who are picky eaters are trying to escape the family meal and will spit, hit, whine or bang on the table. Keep your cool and try to ignore the challenging behavior. Divert attention from any negative behavior by commenting on the food and have others give positive feedback on the food too. Create a conversation about the food and ask questions for the whole family to join in on the fun.

You can ask:

Is this wet food or dry food?

Does it smell good or smell bad?

What does it sound like when you chew it?

What does it feel like on the tip of your tongue versus the back of your tongue?

How is this (pita) bread different from our normal sandwich bread?

Is this fruit juicy or dry?

Tip# 8: Chef for a day. Create time each week for your child to be the chef for a day. Spend time with them researching a recipe that they would like to make. You may search online and look at pictures of something you think they may like. Read to them the ingredients and even invite them along to the store to help you buy the ingredients. They can then learn how to make the meal and be the chef for the day. Giving them the opportunity to “own” this task is a huge accomplishment and offers them a boost in their self-confidence and self-esteem. Even your two-year old can help you. My son was helping with the baking at two and using the measuring spoons and cups to help make banana bread which is still one of his favorites.

I hope these are helpful tips on how food therapy can help your autistic child. Food is amazing for the whole body and when you feed your body the right nutrients your brain and gut can communicate so much better.


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