What Effect Does Diet Have on Kids with ADHD and Autism?

by Susan on June 18, 2015

ADHD and Autism Diet

What effect DOES diet have on kids with ADHD and Autism?

It’s a question being asked more and more frequently by parents, health professionals, and educators. Does what our children eat have any effect on their behavior? As a parent of a child with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve asked this question myself. Can my son’s behavior be controlled by changing his diet? I’ve only just begun to research into this subject, but what I’ve found already is astounding. I’m not here to lists facts and figures and quote extensive studies. I just want to share what I’ve found to make a difference in our own family and hopefully, for those of you who have reached the same point of desperation that I have, it will offer a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

A bit of a background first – my son Kyler was born nearly eight years ago after a long and difficult labor, ending in a rather traumatic birth in which we nearly lost Kyler. I live on a small island in the South Pacific and fetal monitoring isn’t as advanced here and there just wasn’t any way to tell if the baby was doing ok or not through labor and delivery. In years to come, I would often wonder if any of this was the cause of his ‘problems’.

From the very beginning, Kyler was completely different from any of my other children. He cried incessantly, not seeming to be the least bit comforted by being held. I was repeatedly taking him back to the pediatrician as things just didn’t seem ‘right’. But they always determined he was perfectly healthy and was most likely just suffering from ‘colic’. But the ‘colic’ never went away! As he got older he always seemed frustrated, angry, and uncomfortable and much of the time, he was just flat out uncontrollable. I felt like a failure as a mother. It wasn’t until he was two years old that a dear friend of mine suggested that maybe there was something ‘wrong’ with him and perhaps I should have him tested. While no mother wants there to be something wrong with her child, the thought that there could actually be a medical reason behind his behavior was the biggest breath of fresh air I’ve ever experienced! For the first time in two years, I had HOPE! Living on this small island, there just isn’t the professionals in this area that there are in the US and other countries, but we developed a great relationship with our pediatrician here, who really took Kyler under her wing and worked many long hours with us. He responded to her better than just about anyone. And I am so thankful that she also had the belief to use medication only as a last resort. To make a LONG story short, we realized Kyler had classic ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Several years ago I began hearing and reading about the relationship between diet and behavior in ADHD and autistic children. At first it seemed silly to me! But then I decided it was worth a try. After all, most other conditions seem to be able to be controlled by diet. Like I said before, I’m only beginning to touch on this subject in my research but do want to share some of the things I’ve learned and that in particular, have helped us. These are not in any particular order of importance, just random.

  1. Artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Ok, so actually this is probably at the top of the list in importance. There is definitely a distinct difference in children who consume these chemical-laden foods and those that don’t! Learn to read labels! Don’t just assume a certain food does not have artificial ingredients. Work on eliminating synthetic dyes, artificial flavors (MSG, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate), artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin), and preservatives (BHA, BHT, and TBHQ).
  2. Gluten. We’re doing our best to cut out gluten. Yes, it’s tough to adjust to at first! But I saw an almost immediate change in our son when we started to go gluten-free.
  3. Casein. Another difficult thing to adjust to is going casein-free; thankfully we’ve got that one pretty much mastered with Kyler! Again, another noticeable difference, though in our particular situation, I think the gluten has made a bigger difference in Kyler than the casein. Though that could be because he wasn’t too big of a milk drinker to begin with.
  4. Refined Sugar. This includes white sugar, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Sugar is just bad stuff to begin with, whether you have ADHD or not! While there is an ongoing debate over the link between sugar and hyperactivity in children, there’s enough other issues caused by sugar to make me think, “just keep the stuff out of the house entirely!”. 
  5. Caffeine. Another controversial subject! I know some encourage giving hyperactive children caffeine, claiming it “calms them down”. I certainly don’t have the expertise in this area to say for certain one way or the other on this debate, but I can say for a fact that giving your 5 year old ADHD child a can of Mountain Dew to “calm him down” is NOT the answer! For us, we’ve chosen to keep Kyler away from caffeine. 

You may be asking, “What can my child eat then?”!! Here’s some ideas:

  • Give your child 3 small meals a day with two to three snacks, making sure he/she eats approximately every 2-3 hours.
  • Healthy, lean meats (not processed lunch meat, hot dogs, breakfast meats) are good.
  • Snacks such as raw veggie sticks, rice cakes (spread w/ natural nut butter or fruit spread), air popped popcorn, nuts and seeds, and fruit are perfect snacks for a growing child.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough fiber – legumes are a great source as well as most vegetables and fruits.
  • While there is a wide selection of GFCF (gluten-free/casein-free) foods available now, the less processed the food, the better.

My best advice I can give to you is this: love your child with all your heart and embrace who he/she is! Every child is different and unique in their own special way so do your own research and find out what works best for your individual child! Up until 5 years ago, I was of the mindset that ADHD was just a label tagged onto undisciplined children of lazy parents and I had never even heard of Asperger’s. Boy, did I have a lot to learn! Fast forward five years – Kyler is going on 8 now and thriving in ways I never would have dreamed he could! We still have issues – not just daily, but hourly!!!! (Ok, sometimes more like by the minute!) I still lose my patience with him and have days where I feel I must be the worst parent ever! But then I’m reminded of what a special little guy he is and that he was definitely put here on earth by God for a very special reason. And I thank God every day for choosing ME to be his mom!

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