A popular diet intended to curb the effects of autism received yet another blow today in the form of a new study that found that autistic children who adhered to a gluten-free, casein-free diet showed no improvement in their symptoms.
Dr. Susan Hyman, lead author of the study, said she knows that some families would be surprised by the team's findings, especially given the reports of dramatic clinical improvement observed by many families using the diet.
"It would have been wonderful for children with autism and their families if we found that the GFCF [gluten-free, casein-free] diet could really help, but this small study didn't show significant benefits," Hyman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Golisano Children's Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said in a statement. But she did say it was possible that children with significant gastrointestinal disease would reap some benefits from the diet.
Still, Tracey McCollum, the mother of one of the children in the study, said the results were personally disheartening.
"We were hoping to show that the diet made a difference, give a lot of parents some hopes that, 'Here's a magic bullet; here is something that I can do proactively that will help my child," she said. "As a parent you want to do everything you can to help your child do the best he can in life."
The study will be presented May 22 at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia.
The researchers undertook a randomized, double-blinded (meaning neither the participants nor the researchers knew which treatment anyone received), placebo-controlled study.
Fourteen children who were put on the diet for at least four weeks were then given snacks containing gluten, casein, both or neither. The researchers evaluated the children for changes in attention, sleep, stool patterns and characteristic autistic behavior. The study did not show significant changes in any of these symptoms for any of the groups.
Dr. Leonard Rappaport, chief of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston, called the findings "disappointing."
"Even though I did not believe it really made a difference, I was hoping I was wrong," Rappaport said.
Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician and author of the books "Expecting 411," "Baby 411" and "Toddler 411," said that though she believes the study is "far from definitive," the results were not unanticipated.
"I have had many families who have tried GFCF diets and have not found a real difference in their children's behaviors," she said. "I do have a few who claim it does help, but those children also are involved in some behavioral therapy, so it is hard to tease out which treatment has been beneficial."
But David Amaral, president of the International Society for Autism Research and professor at the University of California at Davis, said that the findings may not necessarily be cause for dismay among parents of autistic children.
"Actually, I don't think that many parents will be disappointed," Amaral said. "On the contrary, it is very difficult to maintain children on the [GFCF] diet. Some parents who may have failed in maintaining the diet may feel relieved to hear that it might not be a benefit to their child even if they had persisted."