Autism is a developmental disability that affects the central nervous system at a very early age and is characterized by impaired social interaction, communication, cognitive skills, restricted imagination and repetitive behavior. Autistic children
from their contemporaries. They have difficulty in effectively expressing themselves and display a tendency to shun company. Autistic patients display a spectrum of dysfunction - from those who are physically and mentally challenged to those who look innocuously normal.
Although there are several factors such as genetics, that are implicated in autism,little is known about the disease itself or its real cause(s). Gastrointestinal abnormalities are common in autistic children causing abnormally high quantities of by-products to be leaked into the body resulting in the 'leaky gut' syndrome
. According to one hypothetical theory, the by- products of gluten and casein metabolism modify the activity of opioids, a brain chemical, thereby, rupturing brain function. Another theory postulates that the leaky gut activates a negative immune response.
Surveys reveal that nearly all the autistic children are placed on a diet, at some stage or the other of their life, with the fervent hope that selective abstinence
will do them good.
There are validations from various quarters that a diet free of gluten
(plant protein found mostly in wheat, rye and barley) and casein
(protein found in dairy products), induced symptomatic improvements. But these claims are based on hope, lack factual basis and fall short of the required scientific evidence.
did observe improvements in behavior and cognitive skills in autistic children who were placed on special diets. But the research lacked specificity, as it was not corroborated with a control study. As a health condition that is variable and not well comprehended, researchers are willing to consider the notion that gluten and casein may aggravate the symptoms in autistic children, even if it is only by intensifying the gastro-intestinal discomfort.
Scientific research has been initiated recently
with the hope that it will provide the much-needed means to manage this little understood disorder. Although in its infancy, current studies hope to plug the loopholes created by the earlier studies. These ventures are difficult and demanding - recruiting participants remains the prime obstacle.
The following are the studies undertaken by some research groups -
» Robin Hansen, of the University of California, Davis, has initiated a study where all the subjects will be on a gluten-free diet
for two months after which half the subjects will be provided gluten - free snacks daily for another two months, while the other half will be provided snacks containing gluten. The snacks will remain indistinguishable to the researchers and the parents alike in order to avoid biased evaluations.
» The effect of a gluten-free, casein-free diet, in combination with the omega-3 fatty acids
is being researched at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
» Susan Hyman, of the University of Rochester, is undertaking a study on the lines of Robin Hansen, in which she is evaluating the effect of both gluten and casein
on autistic children.
These studies are implicated to usher in hope to the autistic individuals, their families and to the society at large. The need to find a cure for autism is a subject of controversy
, as some desire a disease - free status while others are compelled to resist it. The latter believe that autism is a way of life that provides the individual with an identity. However it is vital to acknowledge that the disability generates financial stress and denies normal life to the patients and their families. A nurturing ambience, at home and outside, will cultivate the positive traits of these 'special people' and help them to lead more fulfilling lives.