Contradicting the beliefs of Jenny McCarthy and other parents, a report released today says there's no evidence that autistic kids have more digestive problems than others, or that special diets can help the condition.
The report, published in the January issue of Pediatrics, says that digestive pain can impact kids' behavior, and warrants medical treatment — but that digestive issues aren't actually more common in children with autism. A 1998 paper had advanced the notion that autistic children often suffered from a problem called "leaky gut" or "autistic enterocolitis," but that paper has since been discredited, and today's report says there's no evidence that autistic enterocolitis exists. The report also calls for more research into the efficacy of special diets, but says that for now there's no scientific support for them.
This news comes at a time when one in five autistic children is on some form of special diet, most eliminating gluten or casein, a milk protein. Jenny McCarthy has credited such a diet with her son's "recovery" from autism, and many less-famous parents have adopted similar regimens. So the report's failure to endorse the practice may cause a stir.
On the other hand, some parents appear to be taking the report as good news. Rebecca Estepp, whose autistic son is on a special diet, says, "I'm filled with hope after reading this report. I wish this report would have come out 10 years ago when my son was diagnosed." It's possible that she's cheered by the recommendation for more research, or simply by the fact that mainstream medicine is addressing special diets at all. In many cases, parents of autistic children have looked outside the medical establishment to treat a disorder that still mystifies many doctors. Back in 2008, McCarthy wrote,
We've met some of the most amazing moms and dads who are forging their own path to prevention and recovery. When our son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism we were lucky enough to benefit from their knowledge and experience. Evan has been healed to a great extent by many breakthroughs that, while perhaps not scientifically proven, have definitely helped Evan and many other children who are recovering from autism.
For parents like Estepp, the new report may mean more scientific attention in an area where they've long been "forging their own path." Some may resist this attention, but others, hopefully, will welcome it. Because the parents' path sometimes includes measures that affect populations, not just individuals — not vaccinating children, for instance — a closer look at its scientific merits may be good for all of us.
Report: Evidence Lacking For Special Diets In Autism [AP, via USA Today]