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Feb. 22 2010 - 10:15 am | 2,189 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Autism and Diet: Ian’s Story

I was contacted recently by a reader, Pamela, who shared a story about her family and her autistic son.  I was especially moved by her e-mail, and since she offered to share her story with others, we agreed to publish it in a post.

My intention in publishing Pam’s story is not to preach.  I don’t have
personal experience with autistic children, so I cannot possibly understand how parents manage daily responsibilities.  My feeling is simply this – when I received and read Pamela’s e-mail, I thought to myself “if any part of her story resonates with another parent of an autistic child in such a way that they also implement some dietary changes that prove to be beneficial, I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t post this information“.  That’s it.  If any of this story somehow reaches out to others with autistic loved ones, if even in a small way, it has been worth sharing.  So, my intention and hope is to help others through Pam’s experience:

I’ve recently become vegan after a lifetime of eating meat. A combination of wanting to eat healthier and lose weight, along with reading “Conversations with God,” which lead me to “Diet for a New America,” “The Food Revolution,” and “Fast Food Nation” were just a few of the main reasons for my switch to veganism. I feel so much better, have great energy and vitality and even notice better moods and less irritability. My husband is totally on board too as well and so the whole family has been swept along for the ride.

But there is even more good news to share about this change in our family that involves my autistic son. This requires a little bit of background first: Ian is 8 and is considered moderate to severely autistic. He is very low verbal, very sensitive to sound and touch and changes in routine. He has for years been especially defensive around food. The mere mention of food has often upset him and he will gag and say, “bye-bye eat,” over and over. I often had to have a babysitter watch Ian in another part of the house while cooking dinner because of how upset and tantrum-y he would get during dinner time. Ian would only eat from a limited repertoire of food: bagels, crackers, yogurt, popcorn, and granola bars– just the basic refined carb kind of diet most kids seem to go for if allowed. Faced with Ian’s severe rigidity and behavior around food, allow this food I did.

A few years ago we did half-heartedlytry the recommended gluten-free/casein free diet for autistics, with not much notable change. I wonder now if this was due more to our lack of full commitment to the diet, than anything. Recently, I decided to do the gluten-free/casein free diet again. I felt more committed this time, because as a vegan I was no longer doing any dairy anyway and so it wouldn’t be as difficult to transition Ian. I also found out recently through a blood test that I am gluten sensitive , so wanted to eliminate that anyway. Ian has not touched meat himself for over 3 years, so I figured now was the time to get this kid eating good, solid, whole, vegan foods.

A week and a half ago, I made the “Spicoli Burgers” from “eat, drink and be vegan.” I had made them before and really liked them. Ian was in the kitchen while I was cooking, which was so amazing to me because of his past tantrums and sensitivity to the food smells, he couldn’t be anywhere near the kitchen! After cooking and preparing the ingredients for the burgers and blending them as instructed, I was placing the mixture in a bowl to then refrigerate. Ian came over and said, “stir, ” indicating that he wanted to stir the ingredients in the bowl with the spatula I had. I was astonished. His face would be right near the bowl with the aroma of the onion, red peppers, garlic and other ingredients wafting from it. He sniffed at the bowl and stirred and stirred, while I tried not to squeal with delight (lest I scare him away). He wasn’t gagging like he usually would. Just getting Ian near food was a miracle. But it didn’t stop there. As I washed dishes nearby, I saw Ian stick his finger in the mixture and then lick off his finger! Then, he took another lick and another lick. The next thing I know, he is eating the Spicoli burger mixture right off of the spatula! I had to steal a bit of the mixture away for the rest of us for dinner. I managed to get enough mixture away from Ian to make a few burgers. Between that evening and the next day, he polished off the rest! Unbelievable! When it was gone, he handed the bowl to me and said “stir.” And I asked, “Do you want more stir?” And Ian said, “more stir!” I made another batch right away and have made several more since, all of which he has polished off down to licking the bowl clean! At one point I did fry some of the mixture up into actual patties for Ian, but he wasn’t interested. So now your amazing Spicoli burgers are no longer known as such, but in this house are rather simply and affectionately known as, “stir.”

Ian had been off dairy for a month and gluten for a week when he first tried the “Spicoli burger” mixture. He is also calmer and his eczema prone skin is looking much better. I think the gluten-free, casein free diet is helping with his sensitivities. I can cook in the kitchen all day and he is fine with the food smells and the stuff spread out all over the counter. He’ll even come by and stir stuff on the stove with me! As time goes on, I can really see Ian continuing to try and experiment with healthy foods. But in the meantime, if all he wants to eat is ’stir’ (aka: Spicoli Burgers), I’m so fine with that ! It beats bagels and yogurt for sure!

Thanks for the tasty “Spicoli Burger” recipe. It will always be fondly remembered and eaten in this house for some time to come!

As you might expect, I was deeply touched by this e-mail. I wrote back to Pam, expressing my appreciation for sharing her story with me, and offered to send her a copy of Vive so she would have more recipes options for her family. A couple of weeks later, she sent me another e-mail with an update:

I just wanted to drop a quick note to tell you I’m really enjoying “Vive le Vegan!” Thank you so much again for gifting me this cookbook.

I really loved the “Curried Rice ‘n’ Bean-Filled Zucchini with the “Lemon Zinger Vinaigrette.”  I also really like the Chipotle Veggie-Bean Burritos too with the Avocado Cashew Cream. The smoky flavor of the burritos were a hit here and my 11 year old who can be quite picky, liked these too.

Finally, my autistic son Ian really loves the “Kids Dynamo Hummus” from “Eat, Drink and Be Vegan!” He calls it “Hummus stir.” He just licks it off a spatula. He likes when I add extra garlic. I play around with the oil and sometimes add hemp oil and sometimes use less cashews and throw in some raw shelled hemp seeds. I’ve also been able to sneak in half of an avocado! I’ll have to try more of your dips and spreads, because Ian seems to really like the creamy texture.

I’m particularly excited about Ian eating all this nutritious food because it does seem to be really helping him in terms of his autism. He’s not cured, but he has had some major improvements with his attention span and language. He is speaking more clearly and is more willing to try to use words and longer sentences. His skin, which is eczema prone is looking really good and the dark shadows under his eyes have really improved. Taking out the gluten and dairy and giving him “real” food that helps support his brain and gut, has been great for Ian (and for us as his behavior improves too).

I thank you sincerely, Pamela, for taking the time to write to me, and for giving us a window into your family’s experience.

If you’d like to read more about Ian, you can visit “Ian’s Place“.   And, if you’ve had any similar experiences with dietary changes and caring for an autistic loved one, feel free to comment here or on my blog.   I’m sure Pam, as well as others, would be interested in hearing from you.

And, you can get the Spicoli Burger recipe right here!


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  1. collapse expand

    I truly believe that healthy whole foods can be just as effective as medicine in some cases. What an inspiring story! And now I’m craving those Spicoli burgers :-)

  2. collapse expand

    Ian’s experience might have something to do with the new research showing AU kids lack the enzymes to break down proteins. Here is the link to the press release for the fast track FDA approval for the med to handle the issue.
    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/curemark-cm-at-autism-treatment-granted-fda-fast-track-status-84951682.html

  3. collapse expand

    Comment from a reader (anonymous):

    Dreena, My daughter’s ADD stopped when she quit gluten. I discovered she is Celiac. One symptoms of Celiac is “brain fog”. Wheat has been genetically engineered to have more protein thus more gluten as the protein is in the gluten. If the scientists had left it alone; more people could probably tolerate it better. Gluten-free products fill the grocery shelves now. She was at the point of collapse as it caused her to be so ill. The disease had really progressed and damaged her colon so nutrients could not be absorbed. Doctors do not readily diagnose it. She was told that she had lingering flu by a top US hospital. I don’t know if all ADD is caused by gluten. I wonder if there are other foods linked to ADD.

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    About Me

    I am the author of bestselling vegan cookbooks including "eat, drink & be vegan". I am a stay-at-home mom of 3 young children, and find time to cook, bake, create recipes, and blog somewhere in the day between feeding the kiddos, diapers, nursing babe, laundry, cleaning dishes, cleaning house, cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning... school drop-offs and pick-ups, and activities. Nap anyone?

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    Contributor Since: June 2009