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Telling link between diet and autism

Afshan Ahmed

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DUBAI // The role of food in causing and treating autism is one of the main topics of discussion by experts on the disorder in Dubai this week.

While much about autism is a mystery, some are certain food lies at the centre of it.

"Diet plays a very important part in treating autism," said Dr William Shaw, the director of The Great Plains Laboratory in the US and a board member of the National Academy for Child Development.

Dr Shaw said more than 90 per cent of children with autism suffer milk and wheat allergy. If not diagnosed it could hamper their treatment and lead to stunted growth and development.

He will be giving workshops to parents during the Autism Around the World conference, which ends tomorrow at Zayed University.

Cutting out problem foods can help in key areas such as speech and self-harming tendencies, Dr Shaw said. "Parents who have made these dietary changes have seen those autism-related issues reduce considerably," he said.

But a small, intensive study in the US published last year found removing wheat and dairy from an autistic child's diet did not help.

The adjusted diet "did not demonstrate a change in sleep habits, bowel habits, activity or core symptoms of autism", said the lead researcher, Dr Susan Hyman of the University of Rochester.

For many parents solutions remain elusive and they are left with hunches and hopes.

Lara Mouawad, whose son Ryan, 4, has mild autism, could not understand why he was a picky eater.

"He hates pasta, does not like anything that is sticky and sometimes has meat," Mrs Mouawad said. "It's worrying because when he returns from school his lunchbox is untouched." That apparent fussiness could be a sign of a zinc deficiency.

"That needs to be identified and then an addition to the diet will bring changes," said Dr Shaw.

Mrs Mouawad recently had Ryan tested but remains unsatisfied.

"I was told he does not have a casein or gluten allergy but I am not convinced," she said.

Casein is a protein found in the milk of mammals. Gluten is a protein found in wheat products.

Addiction to some foods is common among autistic children and often the result of food intolerance.

"In this case, the source should be found and stopped immediately," said Dr Melissa Olive, a specialist in early childhood special education and a behavioural consultant.

"If this is ignored then it could cause cancer in the long term, inflammation that prevents them from absorbing nutrients and undernourishment leading to a failure to thrive."

Dr Olive said a reinforcement method could be used.

"So the child can be told that if they eat a certain food then they will be given what they like, for example, being allowed to play on the iPad," she said. "Over time they learn that food is not scary and it is tasty."

Experts said there was a general lack of knowledge about autism in the UAE. Even the extent of the problem was not well recorded.

"We know it is a problem but we have no statistics to determine how many children are autistic," said Dr Ali bin Shakar, the president of the Emirates Medical Association.

"A survey … and collaborative work by the ministry of health, education and social services is necessary to ensure they are included in schools and all aspects of society."

Schools have begun to accept children with special needs as authorities enforce regulations to promote their education in the mainstream.

But the lack of qualified special education teachers and therapists remains a challenge.

One educator said it was sometimes hard to convince parents their children should be assessed.

"They are not ready to accept that their children might have autism," said Smitha Kodoth, a special educator at Pristine Private School in Dubai, which conducts counselling sessions with parents.

"Their eating is an essential part of the treatment and parents often ignore that, so we try to work with them and encourage them for further investigation."

Mrs Mouawad says schools rarely have the expertise to successfully include special-needs children. Next page

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