World Autism Month: Food & Nutrition for People Living on the Spectrum
by Kiki Athanas
April 15, 2019
April is Autism Awareness Month and as a sibling of someone with high-needs as an adult living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I think it's the perfect opportunity to leverage my passion for wellness for those who need it most. In fact, over the past few months I've started working on a non-profit venture with the mission to offer real long-term solutions for autistic adults requiring full-time care in a way that's accessible, affordable, and conducive to their utmost health and happiness. On a separate but related note, I've also started selling the nutritious "digestive bites" I make for my own brother, which are essentially a delivery mechanism for the healing goodness I wanted to insert into his wellness regime, which in his case includes probiotics, green superfoods, and last but certainly not least - nervines and adaptogens such as reishi mushroom and ashwagandha. Turns out packaging this all up into chocolate balls that essentially double as dessert is a heck of a lot easier than trying to administer these medicinal ingredients otherwise.
While diet and nutrition has always been important for myself, I intuitively knew it was even more so vital for my brother, as someone on the spectrum. In seeking more expert consultation for ensuring the digestive bites I make for my brother (and now others!) were most suitable for his needs, I connected with Emily Todd, who is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist who works with children on the Autism Spectrum. Below is our interview in which she shares insightful tips and advice for meal planning as it relates to those with ASD.
Q: What are key considerations when it comes to diet & nutrition for people living with ASD?
A: People on the autism spectrum are sometimes described as the “canaries in the coal mine”- which is to say, it is quite common for them to have very sensitive constitutions. While we in the holistic health world understand that putting known toxic chemicals into our bodies is not a great idea, people on the autism spectrum are more likely to be actively sensitive to environmental and food toxins. People with autism often have difficulty with digestion and detoxification, which means it is difficult for them to process any extra toxins in the body and it is easier for the system to get backed up, causing larger repercussions. Taking this into consideration when choosing things to ingest or use will help to lessen the burden on those systems and improve the gut/brain connection, leading to a better quality of life.
For this reason, it is important to read the labels on food to check for ingredients like MSG, high fructose corn syrup, GMO ingredients, and other chemical ingredients that we can’t easily recognize as food! It is helpful to minimize processed foods, food dyes, excess processed sugar and opt for whole foods wherever possible. Using “green” household products also limits toxic exposure and can make a difference.
Q: Are there any specific diets and regimes that you've found particularly useful for helping people living on the spectrum thrive?
A: The most commonly known and practiced diet is Gluten Free/Casein Free/Soy Free, often written as GF/CF/SF. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, and casein is a protein found in dairy products. A little over half of individuals who try this diet notice a positive difference. This is due to a high incidence of digestive issues in people with ASD, as well as changes to how wheat and dairy are produced on farms and their prevalence in the average diet.
In general, it is always best to go with a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods. Food in its whole form (anything from a whole orange instead of just orange juice or natural sweeteners like maple syrup instead of processed sugar) contains all the parts a body needs to digest it and use its nutrients properly. An orange contains fibre to help slow the spike of blood sugar, and bioflavonoids to aid the digestion and productivity of vitamin C. The other benefit to eating whole foods is that the ingredients are known- store bought orange juice could have any number of extra additives, whereas an orange contains, well - orange.
Q: For picky eaters and/or for those adults who may not have access to speciality diets, what are your "real-life" tips/suggestions/recipes?
A: Restricted food choices are one of the biggest things to consider when looking into speciality diets. If someone is only eating a few different foods, and most likely they are something in the realm of bread and dairy products, it is indicative that something deeper is going on (perhaps an addiction to those foods caused by dysbiosis, for example). It is not recommended to remove the only foods a person will eat completely without first adding in new, healthier options.
A few tips:
1. Begin by choosing healthier options of preferred foods. For example, if someone loves to eat chips, try to introduce sweet potato chips or beet chips. Gradually transitioning from a sugar-laden laden cereal to a whole grain option, or a popsicles containing food dye to a real fruit and veggie popsicle can be small changes that make a big difference.
2. Go for preferred textures. Using the same example as above, sometimes a person who enjoys chips for their crunchy texture will easily add kale chips (also crunchy) into their diet which are easy to make at home and a really healthy option for most bodies. Here's a good recipe. Finding which textures/smells etc are offensive and which are accepted can open up a world of options - perhaps someone will actually eat all kinds of vegetables, but they need to be pureed. Experimenting with different ways of eating a food is key.
3. Keep trying. It generally takes about 30 introductions to accept a new food - this is way more than most of us are willing to push through. Don’t force it, it can take time to get used to the idea of a new food let alone actually eat it. This includes smelling it cooking, picking it out at the store, seeing it on the plate, touching it, etc. There are many small steps to get there, breaking it down to manageable pieces rather than jumping right in can be really helpful.
Emily Todd teaches parents how to introduce healthy foods to picky eaters and guides them through special diets. Emily helps families find effective strategies that fit their lifestyle so they have a plan to follow, and maybe even have some time for that ever-elusive relaxation! Find her at www.emilyctodd.com.