The Gut and Nutrition


The Gut and Nutrition

We see many children and young adults in our practice, and find that many of them benefit from a special diet, elimination of certain foods, or use of supplements.  There are many conflicting studies out there that make it difficult to know for sure if there is a connection between nutrition/gut issues and autism; but I can say that in our experience it seems to be true for many.  Like the population as a whole, one rule doesn’t apply to all.  I see some children who do not seem to be affected at all by the things they eat – no gut problems, bowel issues, or behavior that would indicate feeling ill, or high levels of yeast – while others seem to be very affected by all of these things.   It can take a lot of time and effort to sort this all out, but the differences can be remarkable when a child is feeling well and getting proper nutrition.

Special diets are not necessary for every child with an autism spectrum disorder, because every person has their own unique make up and nutritional needs.  There are books, articles, and people out there who promote the gluten/casein free diet for all kids on the autism spectrum.  While this isn’t a bad diet, and it certainly won’t hurt anyone to be on the diet, it isn’t a “cure” for autism; and it doesn’t have the same effect for every person.  Some people see dramatic differences on the diet, while others see no difference.  While the gluten/casein free diet may not be effective for your child, there may be other diets, nutritional changes or supplements that might be.

So, how do you know if your child is suffering from gut issues, or is getting proper nutrition?  This question is a daunting one that can sometimes take days, weeks, months, or even years to answer.  For some children, the answer is quick and easy; for others one answer can lead to more questions.  What works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another, and often times it is by trial and error that you find just the right fit for your child.

It is our goal to help families find the answers in as quick and efficient a manner as possible.  So, what are some of the ways we gather necessary information?  Below is a list of some of the typical steps we take in determining if your child is experiencing gut issues, has nutritional challenges, or may be suffering from yeast overgrowth.

  • Gather a detailed developmental history.  This includes information on your child’s eating, sleeping, and stool habits, as well as his/her behavior.  The history also looks at what types of diets or supplements your child is currently taking.
  • Gather a three day diet history.  Parents journal for three days on what their child ate and drank.  Included in this are any noticed reactions to the foods.
  • Observation of the child.  We spend time observing and interacting with the child over a few hours or sessions, and note any behaviors or symptoms that may indicate food sensitivities or gut issues.
  • Lab Work.  When necessary lab, work is recommended to test a variety of things including food sensitivities, yeast levels, thyroid levels, and mineral levels.  It may not be necessary for children to have all or any of these tests done; but many times we have clients do some types of tests.
  • Referral to a specialist.  In some cases we find it necessary to refer a client to a medical doctor or other specialist for further testing or treatment.  We may send families to get support for supplementation or diet help if we feel it is outside the scope of our practice.  We may also refer a child to see a gastroenterologist to treat gut issues.  There may be other referrals needed, but these are some examples.

Based on all of the information gathered, a course of action is determined and a trial period is established.  The family monitors the child’s progress, and provides updates as needed.  Often times it is initially necessary to make modifications and changes, especially until the right combination is found.  This can be frustrating for families; but I always tell my clients that I won’t give up on them, and will continue to help them until we find a solution.

If you feel like your child is experiencing gut or nutritional issues, find a practitioner who is willing to listen and help you sort through the maze of options.  Dietary changes can be an important component of treatment for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.


  • Jen
    May 9, 2012

    Can you elaborate on what behaviors you look for that may indicate gut issues or food sensitivities?

  • Erin Roon, MA CCC-SLP
    May 10, 2012


    Specific behaviors that would lead me to believe that a child was experiencing gut issues might be things such as pressing on the stomach or abdominal area. Sitting in such a way as to create pressure on the gut/intestines. Sleeping curled up or doubled over. Other behaviors that could indicate gut difficulties could be irritability, toe walking, food refusal, self injury, and/or hurting others or things. These are just some of the possible behaviors. Food sensitivities can also result in some of the previous behaviors, but could also be indicated in hyper or giddy behavior, excessive laughing, crying, sudden onset of irritability, seeming dazed or hyper focused. Behavior can look different in each individual and these behaviors could be caused by something other than food related issues, but there are times when it is difficult to determine the cause of the behavior and so looking into food issues is one path to follow.


  • Vicki
    May 11, 2012

    My adult daughter has autism and is non-verbal – her cues to reactions to food are: her fists are clenched tightly, her body is very stiff, some foods such as tomatoes make her agitated and pacing. Other symptoms as a reaction to dairy and citrus are constipation, runny nose. Her reaction to too much salt is seizures and sweaty palms. I found it best to keep a detailed daily diary and then you will start to see patterns in food and behavior.

    I have not figured it all out yet, but the gluten free diet made her more relaxed and her body was less tense, more regular bowel movements.

    Recently we eliminated all sources of msg (including citric acid, natural flavorings, dextrose) we also noticed a reaction to annatto. Now she is verbalizing a bit more, less sleepy, more coordinated (less tripping over her feet, improvement in using the stairs).
    Any help or encouragement I can offer?

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