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Wednesday Wisdom: The Gluten Free Spectrum

Today’s Wednesday Wisdom post is from a college friend of mine. We met my first day of freshmen year at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. We bonded over fashion homework and knitting, but when I left Milwaukee to transfer schools, I lost touch with her. You know, it was the stone age – before their was Facebook or Myspace. We reconnected through the magic of the internet, and I learned that she is working on moving her family to a gluten-free diet because of her daughter’s Autism. This is her story.

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Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder that affects how a person perceives the world, interacts with other people, and communicates.  –ASSEW website

When we received the diagnosis of autism the day our daughter turned 2 ½, we had no idea how this would turn our lives upside down.  Everything we had learned about child development and milestones, out the window.  Our dreams for her future, dashed. There were no explanations, nor expectations at this point.

After getting over our initial shock, we knew we had a lot of work to do.  We have done so much research some of our family and friends deem us to be experts already.  But there are so many resources out there, I don’t think it is possible to read it all.  One of the first things we came across in all our research was the causes for autism.  There is absolutely a genetic precursor for autism, but it still has not been identified.  This autism gene seems to be provoked by environmental stressors, which can be many things.  The main stressor that much research focuses on is diet, and the main diet focused on is gluten free.  The theory involves the way the mind is telling the body to process this protein.  Since autism is a neurological disorder, the brain sometimes sends the wrong signals, or in some cases, may not send any signals at all telling the body how to process foods or how or when to dispose of the leftovers.  Plus, gluten is a binder by nature, so all the more reason to cut it out of the diet.  The potential is that a gluten free diet could reduce a child’s autistic symptoms, and cause positive changes in speech and behavior.  This is not a research-based theory, however, and does not work for everyone since every child on the autism spectrum is different.  Even though it was only a chance this could help, we dove right in.

We did gluten free strictly for a month.  Our non-verbal, carb loving, toddler was quick to let us know which items she did not approve of.  She actually threw a slice of buttered GF toast across my dining room after taking 1 bite.  But we ended up finding a lot of great products out there too.  And when you are trying to feed a toddler who only eats 10 things anyways, it was important we find things she liked.  Everything we read said that we would see a difference in her mood swings, behaviors, and receptiveness to learning.  Except we didn’t see much of a change.

The whole time my daughter was gluten free, I was too.  I have been trying to support her in my own way by eating what she eats.  One thing I have learned from the last few months being mostly gluten free is that I feel better.  We are not as strict with it as we were for the first month, but I still believe that significantly reducing the amount of gluten in our lives is just a healthier, better way to live.  Our pediatrician is supportive of gluten free, but his recommendation to us was to “shop the perimeter of the grocery store”, avoiding processed foods.   We will continue to enjoy our modified semi-gluten free diet, and recently have been dabbling in the casein free world as well– GFCF rounds out the “autism diet” which we feel as really helped address some of her digestive challenges.

The autism diagnosis rate back in 197 5 was 1 in 5,000.  Today it is 1 in 88.  This is the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the US (www.autismspeaks.org).  Think about all the things that have changed between then and now- there is substantially more knowledge about what autism is, and children can be diagnosed as early as 18 months now, but we also have more pollution in our air and more chemicals in our foods.  If there is one thing we can do for our daughter that is ultimately a healthier choice for our family, it is choosing a reduced gluten diet.   And with the numbers on the rise, I am sure that more families will be choosing a gluten free lifestyle.

If you are worried about your child or a loved one, check out Autism Speaks online checklist to learn the signs for autism.   http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis/mchat

Kelly Mutsch is a fashion brand maven in Milwaukee where she lives with her husband and their adorable daughter.

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