The GFCF Diet and Autism: Does It Work?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Does a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet help children with autism? It seems the answer is a resounding...maybe. Some studies have shown that some children are helped when placed on such a diet, others show it doesn’t make much of a difference. Many parents, however, don’t need a study; they base their opinion on their own child.

    What is a Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet?

    Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Casein is a protein found in milk and dairy products. A GFCF diet eliminates both of these proteins from your child’s diet. It means he can’t consume cereals, breads, pasta, milk, cheese, ice cream or yogurt unless it is made from ingredients that are GFCF. This eliminates most processed foods and restaurants.

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    Staying on a GFCF diet requires you to read all food labels and be ever vigilant in maintaining a strict diet. For those parents who find it works and helps gastrointestinal problems and behaviors, the extra work required is all worth it.

    The Theory Behind Why it Sometimes Works

    Research so far has been mixed, with some studies showed improvements and others indicating little, if any improvement. Numerous studies showed no link to celiac disease, which is an intestinal disorder triggered by an immune reaction to gluten.  A large study published in the JAMA Psychiatry in September, 2013 seems to explain the discrepancies. Researchers discovered a strong association between autism and higher levels of antibodies to gluten. Children with these higher levels of antibodies did not meet the definition of celiac disease but have a sensitivity to gluten and may have reactions to wheat, barley and rye.

    Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are common in children with autism; AutismSpeaks, a national advocacy organization, states that about one-half of all children with autism have GI issues.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children on the spectrum are 3.5 times more likely to have chronic diarrhea or constipation than those who are not on the spectrum. They may also have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes food and stomach acid to move up to the esophagus, causing discomfort and heartburn. Some studies on the GFCF diet showed that children with ASD who also had GI problems were most likely to be helped by this type of diet.

    GI Issues and Behavior

    Some experts believe that GI issues contribute to or worsen symptoms of autism, particularly behavior issues. This might be because children with autism have difficulty communicating and can’t explain their discomfort or pain. Other children are non-vocal, it is even more difficult to let someone know they are in pain. This pain, or even a general feeling of not feeling good, can contribute to behavior issues.

    A survey of parents of children with autism completed by Penn State indicated that, when the GFCF diet does work, they saw improvements in hyperactivity, temper tantrums, eye contact, speech and physical ailments.

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    Tips for Following a GFCF Diet

    It takes a lot of time and effort to follow a GFCF diet. The following tips may help:

    • Give the diet at least six months before deciding if it works. While casein is out of your system in a few days it can take months for all signs of gluten to disappear.
    • Start with one diet first, such as eliminating all casein first. Once your child is eating a balanced diet without casein, start eliminating foods with gluten.
    • Work with a doctor or nutritionist. Children with autism are known to be picky eaters. Their diet is often limited to a few foods. It might be hard to find foods your child will eat and still provide the proper nutrition. A professional can help you create a balanced diet without gluten or casein.
    • Give yourself extra time to grocery shop and plan meals as this is new to you as well.

    Remember, this type of diet improves symptoms in some children with autism, not all. It is one avenue you can explore, but it is not a cure or definitive way to help your child.


    “A Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet No Remedy for Autism,” 2010, Ma 2010, Dan Childs, Lra Salahi and Pamela Mazzeo M.D., ABC News

    “Autism and GI Disorders,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer,

    “Autism Study Finds No Link to Celiac Disease; Gluten Reactivity Real,” 2013, Sept. 25, Staff writer,

Published On: February 11, 2014