Autism Dietary Needs and Schools: Making It Work

As research emerges demonstrating that certain dietary changes may improve the signs and symptoms of ASD, more parents are placing their children on supplements or restricting certain foods from their diets. Certain supplements have also been shown to reduce the gastrointestinal symptoms that frequently plague children with ASD.

Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have touted the positive effects of these diets in their own experiences, adding to the popularity of the “autism diet” and other special programs intended to improve the symptoms of autism.

Special Diets Difficult to Maintain in Schools

But any parent knows that sending a child to school on a special diet is no easy feat. Those with severe allergies to peanuts have perhaps the toughest time, making it necessary to avoid not only peanut or peanut butter-containing foods—but any food that has been manufactured in a plant that has also at one time contained peanuts, baked in a kitchen in the presence of peanuts, and so forth. For this reason, many parents choose to restrict their child’s diet to foods that only they provide directly.

In the case of autism, that’s probably your best bet when it comes to school. School cafeterias serve a wide variety of foods, and if you’re restricting gluten that same “prepared in the same kitchen” effect can apply here, too. Depending on the needs of your child, expecting them to recognize when they’ve been given something that doesn’t meet their dietary restrictions could be unrealistic.

The answer, of course, is to be strict and regimented about your child’s dietary needs. It’s best to pack a lunch each day, ensuring that your child is never exposed even to the smallest amount of casein or gluten-containing foods.

Are Dietary Restrictions Safe?

But you shouldn’t just outright restrict foods from your child’s diet without first consulting with a registered dietician. Because the link between diet and autism hasn’t been thoroughly researched or proven, skeptics still say that cutting out casein and gluten could lead to nutritional deficiencies in growing children.

For this reason, working with a dietician to establish a safe and effective dietary plan specific to your child is the best course of action. A dietician can also provide advice on making school lunches work, whether that means packing your child’s lunch each day with foods that won’t spoil in a few hours without refrigeration or working with the school cafeteria to provide appropriate menu items.

If you’re working with a dietary supplement, try to dose it in the morning before school and after school to avoid adding more complexity to your child’s day. If you must provide it during school hours, establish a clear and easy routine for your child to follow in conjunction with the school nurse.

It’s possible to follow a special diet for a child with ASD, even in the school setting. It requires some extra effort on your part and working closely with the school to ensure compliance, but the results can be well worth it. Is your child following a special diet? How do you make it work during the school year?

Published on: September 12, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Angela Stringfellow

Spending a few years substitute teaching in her local school district and working as a Therapeutic Staff Support for a mental health organization, Angela Stringfellow has extensive experience working with students at a variety of age levels and with varying needs.

Get Dr. Greene's Wellness RecommendationsSignup now to get Dr. Greene's healing philosophy, insight into medical trends, parenting tips, seasonal highlights, and health news delivered to your inbox every month.
No comments yet. Start the conversation!
Add your comment