Monday, July 29, 2013

Can you really keep your autistic child eating healthy? Gluten-free, casein-free, sugar-free?

I invite other parents of autistic kids to share their experiences here (see the bottom of the post). 
I recently reviewed this book by Dr. Mary Herbert recommending dietary changes for kids with autism. Read my many criticisms of the book, but one can't deny that some kids see changes when their parents experiment with different diets. We're blessed that our son isn't terribly picky, particularly when he's hungry. He also doesn't have celiac disease or any digestive issues. We try to put a rainbow on his plate all day (because that's what we eat). We focus on whole grains, fruit and nuts, green vegetables, and try to get him some lean chicken and such. We rarely give him candy or other high-refined-sugar "treats." But it happens. For example, when we eat out he eats a Happy Meal while we eat salads.

The book above gives a (sensational) example of a child on a gluten-free diet who must be rushed to the emergency room after her grandmother unknowingly gave her some dinner with a gluten product. The implication of the example is that even small doses of harmful stuff matter. But America is the land of processed meat and sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.

So, is it possible in a life stage of public school and birthday parties to totally go off gluten, processed meat, high fructose corn syrup, etc. with our son? If he gets just a little, how much is too much? How do other parents answer that question?

My two examples that lead me to say "I don't think it's possible to be ____-free":
Elias attended a summer program for special needs kids sponsored by the county school system. There were a lot of autistic kids there, the teachers and helpers had special education expertise. Every day they had a snack, which were donated by the parents based on a list given by the teachers. It included lemonade drink mix, graham crackers, peanut butter crackers (despite signs on the school door about no peanut products being allowed on-premises) and cookies. They took a weekly field trip for a snack-- once to a donut shop, another to Sonic. Elias loved it, of course, but it's not exactly healthy, and not quite what I'd expect from special education specialists if diet matters in the behavior of kids. If these adults are giving my child that kind of food, how about someone untrained?

Yesterday at church, kids in the children's session were given marshmallows and other candy. When he saw the bag Elias immediately said "I want a marshmallow!" which he repeated several times. He doesn't know what's good for him, only what he wants. And most volunteer adults in a situation as the teacher yesterday would, of course, give it to him. Otherwise, he's the one left out (or I'm the adult in the room who becomes the "bad guy"). So, I let him do the marshmallows but intercepted the other candy. Had I not been there, who knows? (I don't blame the volunteer, she was only following the prescribed Sunday school curriculum to give out marshmallows. Our society makes it hard to present kids with healthy choices.)

If we want to be hard-core with our nutrition boundaries, we have to more forcefully advocate -- send Elias to school with his own food, which the teacher would probably have to take the time to help him open and eat; supply a note to every church we visit not to feed our child during their services, etc. In short, we'd have to be "those parents." Our son would have to be even more different than he already is, which bothers me most. It seems a high opportunity cost. So, what do we send him with? How long do we do that? 

Anyone want to contribute their experiences?

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