Fortunately, Alex has always had a good appetite and been willing to eat a wide variety of food. With the exception of three things—popcorn, mashed potatoes, and sometimes broccoli—he likes nearly every type of food, even peas and carrots, which many kids (and his father) won’t touch. He especially loves shrimp and would eat it morning, noon, and night if he could. When we take him to restaurants, he frequently clears his plate and devours half of my dinner, as well. Despite his hearty appetite, he remains slender, partly because he inherited Ed’s metabolism and build, and partly because he primarily eats healthy food instead of junk food. His willingness to try new foods has been a blessing because when he was about seven years old, we discovered that he has food sensitivities and had to remove certain foods from his diet.
After reading that children with autism often have food allergies, I asked his doctor to run a blood test to see if Alex had issues with food. The test results indicated that, while he had no true allergies, he did have sensitivities to several foods, including green beans, bananas, and eggs, which were three of the foods he most frequently ate at the time. (Some children develop sensitivities to the foods they eat most often.) The bigger concern involved his sensitivities to milk and glutens, which are proteins in many grains. In Dr. William Shaw’s book Biological Treatments for Autism and PDD, he explains that many people with autism lack the ability to digest completely caseins, the proteins in milk products, and glutens, the proteins in grains such as wheat. These improperly digested bits of food, called peptides, can wreak havoc on the system. He states, “These peptides from gluten and casein are important because they react with opiate receptors in the brain, thus mimicking the effects of opiate drugs like heroin and morphine.” (Shaw, 126) Considering how mellow and somewhat in a fog Alex seemed at the time, I suspect that he was essentially being drugged by some of his food. His doctor suggested that we eliminate all foods to which he was sensitive for three months to give his body a rest and then reassess after that. We made the commitment to keep his diet completely free of these foods for those three months, but we found that he seemed to be almost addicted to glutens and would try to sneak bites of bread, even though we had hidden the offending food from him. Gradually, he adjusted to the new diet, and we learned what he could and couldn’t eat. After three months, we re-introduced all foods, except for those with gluten or casein. He was so much more alert and had filled out his overly thin body to a healthy weight after being on the casein-free and gluten-free diet, usually known as the CFGF diet, which seems to help a number of children with autism. We suspected that his digestive system was healthier on this restricted diet, and his brain worked better without foods that didn’t agree with him.
The CFGF diet requires learning to read food labels and nutritional information on restaurant websites carefully to make sure no sources of glutens or caseins are present. Alex has even become adept at knowing what he can and can’t eat on this diet. While he trusts that Ed and I know what is allowed, he will question others if they offer him food, asking, “Does this have wheat or dairy in it?” Even though my mom is also good about knowing what he can’t eat, I have found Alex in her kitchen reading food labels, making sure that she’s feeding him foods that are acceptable on his diet. We are fortunate to have local stores that carry CFGF foods, especially the tasty Kinnikinnick baked goods, including donuts and cookies, as well as Tinkyada pastas that have the same flavor and texture as regular pastas do. I have also learned to bake with rice, potato starch, and tapioca flours, along with rice milk and Fleischmann’s unsalted (dairy-free) corn oil margarine. Carol Fenster’s allergy cookbooks, along with the Special Diets for Special Kids cookbook, have helped tremendously in preparing delicious foods within Alex’s diet. While the CFGF diet has taken some diligence and research on our part and good cooperation on Alex’s part, we are convinced that the effort has been worthwhile because Alex has been remarkably healthy through the years.
“He gives food to every living thing. His faithful love endures forever.” Psalm 136:25