Autism is a disorder with no known cause or cure and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, cases of it are increasing.
Capt. Todd Heer, chief dietician at Winn Army Community Hospital, hosted an autism awareness class called “Pulling the Puzzle Apart” on Tuesday to increase awareness of the disorder from professional and personal perspectives.
“I’d give anything in the world to tell you there is a cure for autism,” Heer said. “I’m not saying there is a cure, but I want people to know there are things that can be done. I want to use my knowledge (as a dietician) and experience (as a parent of an autistic child) to help people.”
He read the CDC’s official definition for autism, which declares it “...a spectrum of neuropsychiatric disorders characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication, and unusual and repetitive behavior.”
Heer said last year, the CDC determined that 1 in 88 children in America have autism; this year’s report said the rate is 1 in 50 children. The CDC notes that autism cases have increased by 78 percent in the last decade, and boys are five times more likely to have autism than girls and said.
Heer said the CDC is not sure if the increasing numbers reflect an increase in awareness and, therefore, more children are being diagnosed. However, the CDC acknowledged that autism is an “emerging disorder of great health public concern.”
Heer talked about some risk factors, including children born to older parents and born early or with low birth weight. He pointed out that 62 percent of autistic children have no intellectual disability and can be “mainstreamed” into normal classrooms and even go to college.
Although the research is limited, Heer said more than 90 percent of autistic children have moderate to severe gastrointestinal disorders, including improper digestion, “leaky gut” syndrome and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Some autistic children would almost rather die than eat, Heer said. Signs of feeding difficulty include failing to latch when breast feeding, not holding a bottle and not progressing with food textures.
Heer discussed nutritional therapies including vitamins and minerals, elimination diets, probiotics, fatty acids and melatonin. Most of these therapies are not supported by sufficient research, he said, but noted that he and his wife had success with their son by eliminating certain foods. They saw immediate improvement by eliminating glutens, soy and milk proteins from their now-3-year-old son’s diet. At 18 months, his son could finally respond to his name and was beginning to talk.
He also believes in the feasibility of the “leaky gut” theory, a hyper-permeable GI tract that allows bacteria, toxins and food particles to leak through and enter the bloodstream.
“I believe that this diet will help alleviate autism-related symptoms in some people,” he said. “This is my statement without research to support but what I have seen clinically and with my own son.”
Heer said that to make the restricted diet work, it has to be a team effort for the entire household. Try it for at least a month, he said, and seek the advice of a nutrition expert. Experiment with food products and preparation and read food labels.