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Coeliac and Autism

Did you know that doctors think there could be a link between gluten and casein free diets and Autism when it comes to behaviour?

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Added 20th September 2015

Updated 10th November 2020

Coeliac and Autism
Autism is a development disability that affects how someone communicates to other people and how they make sense of the world. The condition affects every suffer different, where one person lives a fairly normal life, another will need lifelong specialist support. Autistic people struggle to make sense of the world and often describe the world as a mass of people, places and events which causes high anxiety due to the fact they cannot process what it happening around them as others do. Where someone without Autism can talk to family and often others through intuition, Autistic people find it hard to communicate even with family and often prefer to live life on their own as much as possible.

Autism affects behaviour, in adults this may be more anxiety and social related than anything else, however in children bad behaviour such as fighting, anger, yelling and biting are common reactions in dealing with the world around them. Some doctors are unsure how to control such behaviours but one theory that has become common is diet changes. Gluten and casein (found in in dairy) have often been cited as components which have helped reduce angry behaviour within Autistic children multiple times.

A story I read a few weeks ago particularly marked the effect of gluten on Autistic children, the story was about that of a young Autistic child, around 2 or 3 years old who got very aggressive and lashed out a lot, as the story went on one of the child's older siblings thought maybe removing gluten from their diet might help after she had to go gluten free herself due to Coeliac diagnosis, the doctor didn't think it would help but anything was worth a try to see if it curbed the anger as the lashing out was getting so bad. It took a while to talk the parents into trying it, after all it is a big lifestyle change as we all know. After a few weeks they started to notice a remarkable difference though, the child was much more laid back and not lashing out. As a test the doctor asked them to reintroduce gluten 3 times, and them cut it again. When gluten was re-added the child became aggressive, but after a few days of removing it again they became more laid back.

I see frequently on social media and in newspapers stories of autistic children being diagnosed as Coeliac (although researchers have failed to find a link between Coeliac and Autism), or at the very least having a form gluten sensitivity, and the after effects of removing gluten presenting remarkable changes in the child's behaviour. In the case mentioned above the doctor eventually diagnosed gluten sensitivity and after a year gluten free the child's behaviour was considerable better and the Austism much more under control. There are plenty of other stories around of similar such diet changes, for example here and here.

There have already been many theories about a link between Coeliac and Autism over the last decade or so, however the studies are always relatively small deeming them inconclusive. The main thought around it is that elevated levels of peptides, caused by gluten and casein contribute to the behaviour of Autism, the peptides are possibly "biologically active" and interferes with neurotransmission causing issues with activity and senses (see Coeliac UK for more details).

It has also been suggested that Coeliac can present itself as Autism. As in the story above the Autistic symptoms of the child were actually in fact being caused, or at least emphasised gluten intolerance. The child may have had Autism but it wasn't as prevalent as first suggested, gluten was adding to the problem, but can Coeliac present wholly as Autism? There has been cases where Coeliac has been misdiagnosed as mild Autism as the symptoms, especially in children, can can display as behavioural issues (ever had a toddler kick and scream at you unable to tell you it has belly ache because it is to young to understand?), however whether it can be misdiagnosed as severe Autism needs a lot more research. Autism has a lot of behavioural and social interaction symptoms which Coeliac alone probably cannot be held responsible for.

Some organisations such as The National Autistic Society already suggest a gluten and casein free diet could potentially be used as a biomedical intervention, but as already mentioned, it lacks in major research, minor research studies don't offer enough proof to outright say there is a definite link. However it does suggest that a link between gluten and autism is slowly being considered and is gradually getting more recognised by doctors.

There is research that does suggest a possible link to Coeliac, but there have also been studies that say it isn't linked to Coeliac but did find higher levels of antibodies to gluten in general, suggesting possible sensitivities. You can read an article about this 2013 US study here.

Coeliac and gluten sensitivity diagnosis are higher now than ever before, could it be that those with autism would have Coeliac even if they weren't autistic? Or can gluten really be linked to Autism and make the symptoms more prevalent? Only research can figure that out, maybe one day there will be a definitive answer to the Coeliac/Autism link one day soon.

Please remember we aren't medically trained if you suspect you or your child has any condition mentioned get checked out by a GP.

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