Leveraging Holistic and Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of Autism
Many children with autism cannot handle certain foods, food colorings, and household products without toxic effects on their behavior. A common example is the solvent found in dry-erasable markers. It is breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Exposure can quickly result in agitated behavior that lasts several hours. Another example is the red dye in food coloring. This can make children hyper and agitated for several hours or more.
The most common foods to cause behavioral problems are wheat (gluten), dairy, and food coloring. Taking these out of your child’s diet makes a huge difference for some children, and no difference for others. It is definitely worth finding out if diet makes a difference for your child. And it your child’s development seems to stall, diet is always something to think about.
On this page we discuss the concept of toxic load as it applies to children with autism.
The Concept of Toxic Load
We know there are low levels of toxins in our food, water and air, but our body is usually able to handle them without getting sick. We are also exposed to a wide variety of chemicals in our homes and schools. Up to a certain point, our body’s system for detoxification can get rid of the toxins that we are exposed to, and keep us in good health. This is the concept of acceptable toxic load. Provided the levels of toxins don’t get too high, we can get rid of them naturally and remain in good health. We can and do handle a small amount of air, water and food pollution without a problem. Above the acceptable toxic load, we get sick.
Toxic Load and Autism
The concept of toxic load is important for parents caring for children with autism. Children with autism are not just immature developmentally; many have immature digestive and detoxification systems as well. Just as infants are more vulnerable to toxins, so are children with autism. A small exposure that would cause no reaction in another child can make a child with autism quite ill. Because they have a harder time breaking down and eliminating toxins, toxins remain in their systems longer and cause regressions in behavior.
There are three main areas where parents can make a big difference in the child’s toxic load: Qigong massage, diet and chemicals used in the home.
Qigong Massage Reduces Toxic Load
Giving your child daily qigong massage will strengthen his or her body’s ability to get rid of toxins. One of the first signs that this is happening usually happens within the first few weeks of massage–the child produces a bad-smelling, very dark green or black bowel movement. This means that the digestive system is clearing out. The dark stool may continue for several days, and signals the beginning of more regular bowel movements.
Even though the massage will help strengthen your child get rid of accumulated toxins, it is still important to prevent and reduce ongoing exposure. Otherwise, they can slip backwards again.
Decreasing Toxic Load in the Diet
At first glance, the idea of helping autism with diet may seem surprising. However, recent research is opening up the possibility of diet change as a helpful intervention for autism. Some children respond positively to changing their diet, while others do not respond at all. Having said that, you won’t know which way your child is until you actually try.
There have been large research studies that show that preschool children have more behavior problems when they eat processed foods with artificial coloring, particularly red dye. Eliminating artificial coloring from your child’s diet is a good first step to a healthier diet. To do this you will need to become a label reader. The most common one, red dye, is added to many processed children’s foods. For information about avoiding synthetic dyes and preservatives, see The Feingold Association.
Studies suggest that children with autism frequently have underlying digestive problems that include enzyme deficiencies and inflammation of the digestive tract. If a child doesn’t have the enzymes to digest certain foods, these foods tend to irritate the gut. Not only can this cause diarrhea, constipation and poor appetite, but problems with behavior can follow.
Elimination diets attempt to address the underlying digestive problems by removing the offending foods and giving the inflammation a chance to heal so that the gut can once again produce the necessary enzymes. Qigong massage helps the healing process along by strengthening the gut and clearing out the toxins on a daily basis. Later, when your child is stronger from the qigong, you may be able to allow some of the offending foods back into the diet in small amounts.
Research has shown that some children with autism improve on the gluten-free/ casein-free diet. Children with autism are extremely resistant to any change and may be particularly resistant to diet changes. They often self-select an extremely restrictive diet high in gluten, casein and chemicals, sometimes eating only three or four foods, with hot dogs, pizza, and macaroni and cheese being frequent favorites. Parents are often nervous about removing dairy and gluten since these may be the only foods their child actually eats. They are afraid their children may starve.
If parents begin the QST massage program before they change their child’s diet, the child will tolerate the change better, since qigong massage helps the child adjust to change, and improves appetite and digestion. Depending on how few foods the child eats, it may be easier to remove just dairy the first month, and wait until the second month to remove gluten. In some cases improvement is sudden and dramatic, but in others, positive changes may not be apparent for several weeks. Initially, in a minority of children, there may even be a temporary worsening of autistic behaviors for a few days to weeks.
Positive changes include more awareness of the environment, more eye contact, decreased self-injurious behaviors, decreased aggression, better bowel function and eating a wider variety of foods.
Getting Support for the Diet
Talking with other parents who have already successfully implemented the same diet can be invaluable. They can act in a mentor role, providing tips regarding shopping, cooking, setting up the kitchen, etc. Furthermore, local support groups and the Internet (e.g. Yahoo groups) can be very helpful for support, answering questions, and providing recipes.
Dairy Elimination Diet
The suggested time frame for the dairy elimination diet is one month. Foods to avoid include milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream, and whey (a hidden ingredient in many pre-packaged foods). Suggested substitutes include rice milk and rice ice cream.
Gluten Elimination Diet
The suggested time frame for the gluten elimination diet is four months. Foods to avoid include those containing wheat, rye, barley, oats, bread products (such as muffins, cakes, cookies, pasta, pizza and stuffing), and breaded items such as chicken nuggets and fish sticks. Gluten can be challenging to eliminate from the Western diet since many people eat it three times a day – cereal in the morning, sandwiches at lunch, and bread, pasta or pizza at dinner. Nonetheless, rice based cereals, breads and noodles can be found. If food is prepared at home, the diet can be healthy and balanced with no gluten or dairy at all.
Outside the Home
Tell everyone with which your child has contact about the special diet, including family members, teachers, church school staff, daycare providers, and friends. Request their help in making sure that your child does not get inappropriate foods. The easiest way to ensure compliance is to always pack and send appropriate foods and snacks with your child. Restaurants provide another set of challenges. Many authentic Asian restaurants use little dairy or gluten in their cooking. Many use rice as the basis for noodles and other items. Western style restaurants, on the other hand, are heavily dependent on dairy and gluten.
Additional Diet Resources
Fein gold Association at www.feingold.org; Extensive information and research studies regarding the role of synthetic additives.
The GFCF Diet: at www.gfcfdiet.com; A support group regarding dietary intervention treatment for autistic spectrum disorders. They confer with manufacturers and provide listings of permissible foods. Excellent prepackaged gluten free/casein free foods and cooking mixes can be purchased from the website.
Autism Network for Dietary Intervention: at www.autismNDI.com; includes research studies pertaining to dietary interventions in autism.
Special Diets for Special Kids by Lisa Lewis, Ph.D. (available on amazon.com and other websites)
Reducing Toxic Load in the Home
We use many different chemical products in the home ranging from cosmetics and hair products, air fresheners, fabric softeners, bleaches and cleaning solvents, to garden chemicals. Children are exposed to these both by inhaling them, and touching them, and they contribute to toxic load. They can cause behavioral disturbances. These products are supposed to make home life easier, but may actually make home life more difficult if the children start reacting adversely to them. None of these products existed sixty years ago, and people were able to get along quite well without them. It makes sense, wherever possible, to avoid using these products, and wherever possible to eliminate them or substitute them with alternatives using natural ingredients.
Qigong Sensory Training Institute (QSTI) is a nonprofit organization that developed and teaches Qigong Sensory Treatment (QST) to parents and professionals. We are the only source in the world that teaches QST, and only organizations and individuals certified by us are qualified to teach and treat. See the list of QST Certified Trainers here.