Can a New Diet Help Autistic Kids?

For Brooke Bedwell, seeing her 8-year-old son, Zak, calmly read a book is a dream come true.

"I'm really proud of him and the hard work he's done," Bedwell said.

The Bedwells are among the families with autistic children who have tried a controversial, gluten- and wheat-free diet for their kids and say it has worked wonders to alleviate their symptoms.

As a toddler, Zak was diagnosed with autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates developmental disabilities like autism or autismlike disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome, will strike one in every 150 children, and four out of five of them will be boys.

"First time we noticed something was right around six months," Bedwell said of her son. "He just kind of stopped babbling overnight. Right around 3 he was tantruming all the time."

A New Diet Offers Hope

There is no known cure for the autism, but parents with autistic children will often try anything to bring them back from their mysterious exile. The Bedwells began at the dinner table.

Bedwell said Zak had been eating "typical toddler fare -- macaroni and cheese, pizza."

Those are foods high in gluten -- a protein found in wheat and other grains.

Dr. Jerry Kartiznel, who works with autistic children, believes that the proteins in wheat and dairy wreak havoc on some children's brains.

"Gluten in the body has been theorized to make a morphinelike substance, and that morphinelike substance … will affect the brain," said Kartiznel.

Kartiznel, himself the father of an autistic son, supports parents who cut gluten and casein, another protein found in dairy products, from their children's diets.

Actress and author Jenny McCarthy says her son, Evan, made huge strides after working with Kartzinel and adopting the diet.

"As the weeks went on, I noticed my kid coming out of this cloud," McCarthy said.

Some parents report that the diet seems to help not just autistic kids but others who have developmental delays and even some adults, who report feeling more focused and full of energy.

"The old adage, 'You are what you eat,' is pretty true," Brooke Bedwell said.

Many doctors, however, remain skeptical that the gluten- and wheat-free diet has any effect on autism.

"We don't have sufficient evidence right now to support recommending a gluten- and casein-free diet. We don't have evidence that it's harmful, but we also don't have evidence that it's helpful," said Dr. Carolyn Bridgemohan, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

McCarthy and Bedwell are convinced that the way back to their children's health has definitely been through their stomachs -- and they want other parents to get the message.

"It's such a worthwhile thing to try, and there's really nothing to lose," Bedwell said.