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ASU-led study shows deep connection between diet and symptoms of autism

Dietary interventions could greatly improve quality of life for those with autism spectrum disorder

Tooker Hall Salad Bar

ASU students create a line at the salad bar inside of the Tooker dining hall in Tempe, Arizona, on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.

A new study led by ASU Professor James Adams has shown that changes in diet can radically alter the lives of people with autism. 

Adams leads an ASU research program that investigates the biological and medical dimensions of autism spectrum disorders. Published in March, the most recent study by Adams and his team looks at the ways diet can influence specific symptoms and general quality of life of those with ASD. 

They did this by changing the diets of 67 children and adults with ASD and following their progress over the course of a year by having them take an assortment of tests. The tests ranged from blood tests to look at different nutrition markers to muscle strength tests to nonverbal IQ tests. The idea was to combine many different dietary changes in a single study to measure the total effect of these changes by the end of the year. 

They found that simply removing certain foods — especially those containing gluten, soy and casein, the main protein found in dairy — caused large improvements in non-verbal IQ test performance when paired with a multivitamin and a few other interventions, like epsom salt baths. 

"Our study is complicated because we looked at six different treatments,” Adams said. “For each one of those treatments, we had previous research by our group or by other groups. ... To some extent, our goal was to put all those treatments together and have a more comprehensive study."

In addition to general improvements to health, researchers measured a seven-point increase in nonverbal IQ. Adams said this increase was unexpected even in their best-case scenarios. They also saw an 18-month increase in the average developmental age, which is the comprehensive metric for a person’s emotional, physical, cognitive and social age of development measured against the norm.

It is rare to see any dietary intervention cause such large improvements in test performance, and this recent paper has led some to wonder just how much the impediments faced by those with ASD can be improved through diet alone.

Aside from the valuable data put forward by this new study, there were some touching stories of dramatic changes in the quality of life of the study's participants. Adams gave the example of one girl who didn't have the energy to walk because she was so low in carnitine, a nutrient found in beef and pork, both of which the girl refused to eat. 

"She did not have the energy to go up a set of stairs, she did not have the strength to step into the family van. ... She could not stand up by herself," Adams said. "Once she started the carnitine supplement, she regained her energy. She began skipping around the house. ... The family put the wheelchair in storage."

Such stories, though they represent the small minority of improvements, are encouraging. Adams said stories like these were not too uncommon over the course of the study. 

Fellow researcher and psychometrist Elena Pollard administered the behavioral tests given to the study participants. She remembers one period when they ran out of the multivitamin and the reaction from the parents of children who were participating in the study. 

"It was amazing: the calls we were getting," she said. "Parents had forgotten what some of the behaviors were because they hadn't seen some of them for so long. ... I've heard so many stories from parents about how well it was working for them." 

Vitamins, food restrictions, salt baths — all of these are just the very beginning of the direction this line of research will take. Adams and his team are currently working on a few different studies that take different approaches. For his part, Adams thinks there is a strong connection between the symptoms of ASD and gut health, as many who have ASD also show significant differences and deficiencies in gut bacteria. 

More information about this study and others on diet and autism is available at Nourishing Hope

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