Nutrition and Autism: It’s Not Exactly What We Think

When people say that they can “heal my child’s autism” with their special vitamins, I react differently than when my son was first diagnosed.

At first, I desperately wanted to get rid of his autism. I hate admitting this, but I’ve tried vitamins. We ate pretty “clean”. and part of my motivation was to heal him.

I thought this was because autism was always described as a horrible thing that would devastate our family unit. Autism was described in “red flags” and “symptoms” and I thought my boy would be “trapped in his own mind”, because that’s how it was explained on tv by authority figures.

I wanted him to “get better”, because the way autism was always explained to me, I thought it was a disease to be cured.

Once I learned from autistic people about what autism actually is, I realized my errors. At one point I became enraged at people who tried to take everything that makes my child so perfect and tell me they can “fix it”.

But now when I hear a person claim they’ve “healed autism” through nutrition, it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t offend me. But I wonder what they really mean.

First thing’s first. There’s no way around it: what we consume affects every aspect of our being. Nutrition is the very foundation of health and healing.

And yet, the word “healing” is often conflated with curing, and many of these same aforementioned people attempt to “cure” autism with vitamins.

As if a neurotype needs “curing”. 

I’ve also noticed that these same people who believe in curing a neurotype have a very narrow understanding of what autism is. Many times they will make claims about “severe” autism. So before we move on, we need to have the same working definition of what autism is.

Autism is diagnosed when a person meets a “smattering” (that is the official word used) of identifiable markers. A person cannot be “more” or “less” autistic: if you meet the smattering of criteria, you are. Can you have “autistic qualities” and not be autistic? Of course, because autistic traits are human traits.

But autism is a spectrum and autistic people have a wide variety of support needs, some with less, others with more, and sometimes these needs change with time.

Additionally, some autistic people have co-occurring conditions, which are often conflated with autism.

For example, autism is not an intellectual disability, but some autistic people are intellectually disabled (just as some neurotypical people are intellectually disabled).

In an attempt to keep this brief, the most common markers of autism are (but not limited to):

1. an obviously different sensory profile in which sensitivities to things like light/sound/pressure on the body are markedly different compared to a neurotypical person. Often this intense sensory input is dealt with by stimming, an important regulatory behavior that most people do, but autistic people do more often and often in more noticeable ways. Here is my book that simply explains what stimming is.

2. a different manner of speech and/or communicating compared to a neurotypical person.

If you noticed that both indicators of autism relate to not being neurotypical, you’re very observant. We will discuss the implications of this another time.

“Curing” an autistic person means to extinguish their very existence. If I were to approach you and say, “there is something wrong with your mind. It doesn’t work right. Every single way you interpret information in your surroundings is wrong and backwards, but trust me, I can fix you. Here take this medicine.”

It’s offensive and not necessary. 

Curing how your brain interprets information implies that there is something wrong with it in the first place. 

A judgmental approach to autism is common, especially in holistic communities, which I proudly am a part of (usually). Changing my diet has profoundly impacted how I exist. I learned how to heal my gut and improve my health through functional medicine and nutrition.

Holistic and functional medicine practitioners lose an entire demographic of potential clients because they ignorantly presume that all autistic people and their families must want the unique neurology of autism extinguished.

And many times these same people believe we need to cure autism because when they think of autism, they are talking about a very particular type of autistic person who has significant obvious support needs. They do not understand that you cannot “spot” all autistic person in the general public.

The same circles that significantly improved my health also call autism an “epidemic”, which implies it is a disease to be eradicated. 

While it is true that autism rates are “on the rise”, the exact reason for this has not been determined yet. These same “holistic” people will claim it is from exposure to heavy metals and toxins in our food.

But an important reason, (one that these people rarely acknowledge), is that autism is more diagnosed today than it was even 10 years ago. When people were previously called “quirky”, “different”, “odd”, “troublesome”, we now have an understanding that there are different styles of communicating, and that autistic people raised in significantly supportive and accepting homes can thrive.

In particular BIPOC and females are now being diagnosed more than ever, whereas before, these people were often hidden from society or brutalized in order to make them conform. Sadly, this was often done in the name of “safety”. If you want to read about this, please do yourself a favor and read In A Different Key.

But back to food and autism. Sound nutrition is paramount to everyone’s health. When we eat better and consume consciously, our rates of depression, anxiety, and chronic inflammation plummet for everyone.

Neurotypical people would do well to recognize that using language to “cure” someone’s neurotype is harmful. 

And yet it must be said that many autistic people also do not consume high quality food. Why? Many autistic people struggle with nutrition because food is an intense sensory experience for them.

For example, no two berries will taste exactly the same and each one can be interpreted as a shock to the palate (for some people).

Sometimes the smell or sight of a food triggers a gag reflex (because remember how I said a hallmark of autism is a heightened sensory profile?).

Is this example true for all autistic people? No.

Do some neurotypical people have heightened senses like smell, sight, or taste. Yep.

Do sometimes people think that they’re just picky and difficult but when they learn about the hallmarks of autism they realize they could be on the spectrum but never pursue it has been explained to them as though it is a horrible disease that needs to be cured? You betchya.

Processed foods are uniform and often considered “safe” by autistic people because it will not shock their gustatory sense.

There are ways to help autistic people become comfortable with diverse food, but it often takes time, resources and education.

Socio-economically disadvantaged families are unable to do this, and often opt for processed foods in order to feed their child. Because believe it or not, autistic people like my child will simply not eat rather than eat something appalling to their palate. They can do this indefinitely. It is not the same thing as a “picky” eater.

Wealthy people often are the ones who “heal” their autistic children, but what they really mean is that their child’s gut biome is healthy and thriving due to the nutrition provided. When they say the “behaviors of autism” are reduced or eradicated, it likely means their child does not have an inflamed nervous system and likely, their child has adeptly learned how to mask publicly so they do not appear autistic. Because remember, their parent has spent a lot of time and money “curing it”.

It should be noted that these wealthy people also often have insurance and provide early intervention like speech and occupational therapy, allowing their child to communicate and perform daily living tasks which enhance their self-worth and developmental progress.

We don’t need to shame people for these things, but I do believe we can do better for all autistic people who just want to live happy and healthy lives.

We can hold these two truths simultaneously: our food chain (especially in America) is profoundly damaged, and still make space for the fact that there are a variety of neurotypes and ways people process their environmental and emotional input. 

If you’re interested in me doing a deeper dive into food, gut healing, and autism, please drop a comment below!

Here’s What I Wished I Knew When My Kid Was First Diagnosed as Autistic

hen your child is identified as autistic, most parents believe they need to learn a monumental amount of information in order to support their child. I definitely took that approach when my kid was first diagnosed. 

But in hindsight, if you really want to help your child, an unlearning must occur. 

Most parents begin to observe that autism might be present in a child when developmental milestones are not met at the typical times. This often creates fear and anxiety within the parent.

This looks like: “She should be talking by now” or “Why isn’t he playing with kids at the playground?”

This is what happened with my child. It appeared everything was “normal” and then, around 17 months, we saw a regression in speech, as well as sensory processing differences that were no longer quirky; they were intruding on his quality of life and ability to access a typical education.

There was no doubt my son was growing and learning, but he was doing so in a way that caused alarm because it was not typical.

The alarm was that he appeared autistic, when previously he didn’t seem to be. 

I was always taught that early intervention was the key to a child’s success. I was counseled about the “warning signs” of autism and how it needed to be “treated” right away, or else….

This right there is what people need to unlearn.

The way autism is described to parents makes it seems like a disease that can grow and take over an entire person, somehow locking them away from meaningful relationships and joy. 

Unlearning that approach and asking better questions will yield far greater results. 

Better questions are: is your child developing? What external factors could be preventing development? Are you aware of your child’s sensory needs? What do you know about the autistic mind and how it differs from a neurotypical mind?

If you can answer these questions first, the fear will begin to dissipate. Autism is a disability because of the world we live in. The timetable pushed from the medical and educational community might leave your child out. 

Do not get me wrong, milestones are important markers, but if your child is autistic and not meeting milestones at the prescribed timetable please do not fear. 

This requires a great deal of courage because many parents are shocked by an autism diagnosis in the first place. Additionally, asking questions to people in positions of authority like school officials and medical providers is often perceived like challenging authority. 

Some questions I had to ask: How does one “treat autism”, exactly? If we don’t approach it like a disease, what else will happen? How do I intervene in autism, exactly? What am I intervening in, exactly? 

Years later, here’s what I wished I was told when my kid was first diagnosed: 

  1. Developmental milestones are approximations of appropriate progress. 
  2. Milestones are based on the neurotypical standard that dominates parenting books, and they shape our perception of acceptable development. 
  3. Our whole educational system is based on a neurotypical timetable that leaves very little space for neurodivergent thinkers who develop outside the typical. 

It’s for this reason my spouse and I feared for our son’s future. We were very explicitly told that autism was serious. We were coached that his natural way of processing information was something to extinguish as best we could with “early intervention” that could reduce “symptoms” of autism. 

The autistic way of processing the world is not a disease. Approaching your child as though this is the case is precisely how you damage and traumatize them. Autism is not the problem; our way of thinking about it is.

Our entire system is based on an expectation of socially accepted time and space for our children. If your child has been diagnosed as autistic, I understand the fear and concern you might be having, especially if you have not paid close attention to autism before. But very likely your child will not develop typically because your child isn’t typical. That isn’t a problem unless you judge it to be one.

If your child doesn’t develop at the same rates as others, doesn’t mean development isn’t occurring. 

And maybe they speak later, or achieve gross motor skills later. So what? 

Maybe they’ll need additional support like speech or occupational therapy that helps with the acquisition of those skills. So what? 

Your child isn’t broken. I bet your child has other gifts that are never asked about or measured on a pediatric chart. But you could chart them if that’s what’s needed to celebrate. And you need to celebrate them just as all children need to be celebrated for exactly who they are. 

Parents must get used to the idea that the way their child grows could look different than others, and that’s perfectly fine. 

I remember very vividly a time when I was taking my then three year old to daycare. I was constantly worrying about his lack of speech and what I would do. I worried about his intelligence multiple times per hour. “What is happening inside his mind? Why can’t he repeat after me? What is happening? He used to make sounds, right?”  

I buckled him in and got in the car, and he began making all kinds of sounds as I began to reverse the car. I said, “what’s wrong?!”, surprised by the sounds he made. 

My first inclination was that we were in a rush, and stopping for what seemed like “nothing”. We were always running late, and I was stressed. And yet, I could not help but be shocked by this unusual interaction.

He kept making the sounds, never ceasing until I put the car in park. At the time, he struggled to point, which is a common issue for autistic children. It seemed he was alerting me to the front of the car, so I opened the door and saw my coffee mug resting on the hood of my car. I could not believe he noticed that and that he felt compelled to alert me. 

In that moment, I was overcome with emotion.  I realized my son notices so much he probably cannot begin to say all the things he observes. I felt so proud of him, and if I am honest, I was proud of myself. Instead of writing off his attempt to communicate, I listened to it. It was different than his sister, but he was engaging me as best he could. 

That moment was transformative. I began to witness all kinds of tiny interactions he was making; I was oblivious to them because of my expectations of how it should be. 

From that moment, I shifted and I write this in the hopes that you will too.

Thank you for being here!