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!

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