Cary, N.C. — About 1 percent of 8-year-olds in the United States are diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder that can affect social interaction and communication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some celebrities, television talk shows and Internet sites suggest a gluten-free, casein-free diet will improve an autistic child's ability to function and communicate. That means that children can't eat food with gluten proteins, which are found in wheat, barley and rye, nor any dairy products with casein protein.
The theory is that children with autism have a damaged intestine that leaks partially digested protein into the blood stream, with harmful effects on the brain.
Duke University psychiatrist Dr. Rick D'Alli said the few clinical trials to test the effects of the diet have produced inconclusive or contradictory results.
D'Alli said the online and celebrity testimonials that are boosting the popularity of the diet are based solely on anecdotal evidence.
"It's story-telling. It's not scientifically based," he said.
Kim Roberts said her son's physician recommended that her 6-year-old son, Jaden, eat a gluten-free, casein-free diet. He was diagnosed with autism when he was about 2 years old, and his mother is convinced there's a dietary link.
"He had diarrhea (or) runny stools. Some foods came out whole," Roberts said.
She now carefully controls everything that goes onto Jaden's plate. One recent lunch consisted of crinkle-cut fries that had no preservatives, apple slices, grapes and nitrate-free hot dogs without buns.
"Foods started to get a little bit digested better," she said.
The special foods and ingredients Roberts uses for Jaden's diet are more expensive and time-consuming, but she's committed to it.
"He's probably eating better than a lot of children," she said.
Jaden also receives professional therapy, and his mother said she doesn't know if it's the diet, the special attention or both that's helping him make progress.
"He has come a long way," she said.
People who have questions about or want to participate in National Institutes of Health autism studies should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-411-1222.