Dietary Treatment of Autism

Is a gluten-free/casein-free diet helpful in treating autism? Our son was diagnosed as autistic several years ago. We've been using behavioral therapies with him, but a friend suggested that this kind of diet might also be helpful.

Unfortunately, there is no simple yes-or-no answer to this question. Some parents of autistic children claim that the gluten-free/casein-free diet (GFCF) has brought about improvements in their children’s speech and behavior. The problem is that their testimony is purely anecdotal. It’s based entirely on individual reports and lacks the support of formal studies involving many children. The fact of the matter is that most families don’t see improvements with the GFCF diet.

The theory behind the GFCF diet posits that allergies or sensitivities to the proteins gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley) and casein (found in milk) are responsible for some of the symptoms of autism. Supposedly these proteins are processed differently in the intestines of autistic individuals. The presumed result of this different processing is the release of molecules into the bloodstream that affect the brain, resulting in the symptoms of autism. But as we’ve already stated, none of this has been scientifically proven.

Does this mean that the GFCF diet isn’t worth trying? Not necessarily. It is, after all, a relatively inexpensive course of action, and it’s not particularly hard to implement when compared with other forms of therapy. Besides, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and lower in processed foods is always a healthy choice.

Individuals on a GFCF diet must avoid wheat, barley, rye, and dairy products, as well as other foods that are typically contaminated with gluten or casein. For example, while oats do not contain gluten, many brands of oatmeal are inadvertently adulterated with small amounts of gluten. Fortunately, gluten-free oatmeal can be found in many health food stores.

If you are considering a GFCF diet for your child, keep in mind the following:

    • Before you begin a GFCF diet, be sure to talk with your pediatrician or family doctor.


    • If your child is currently engaged in another form of therapy that is showing results (behavioral therapy, for instance), don’t stop it while trying the GFCF diet. Dietary changes may not hurt, but they shouldn’t replace other treatments, especially treatments that seem to be working.


    • The GFCF diet is part of what is known as the “biomedical model” for autism treatment. This means that it’s a treatment based on presumed biologic factors. Unfortunately, there are other types of autism treatment that are also considered part of the “biomedical model” which have been shown to be ineffective (including removal of amalgam dental fillings) or even harmful (such as chelation therapy). Steer clear of these types of therapy.


  • Because GFCF diets rule out most breads and grains, as well as dairy products, parents need to be careful to make sure their child receives plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and calcium while engaged in this form of treatment.

If you need more information, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department for a free consultation. They’ll be pleased to assist you in any way they can.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Hope for Families of Children on the Autistic Spectrum

United in Autism

The Autism Society

Autism Speaks


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