National Autism Awareness: Autism, Cognitive Function, and Nutrition

April is National Autism Awareness Month. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the inception of the Autism Society, whose mission is “to promote autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all, and assure that each person with ASD is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life.”1


In 2015, their goal is to go beyond promoting autism awareness and focus more upon encouraging friends and collaborators to become partners in movement toward acceptance and appreciation.


I recall a client I worked with a few years ago who received a call from his six year old son’s doctor right before one of our Tuesday morning sessions. He’d been to countless physicians, psychiatrists and speech therapists and finally, the diagnosis came in the form of a phone call.


While working with this client over the next several months, I caught a mere glimpse of what it was like for him, his wife, his son, and their two younger children.


With any medical or health condition, when we’re brought close enough to see it in person, it somehow becomes more significant, more meaningful and often proves to be the impetus to “do something.”


And on my end, what I could do was offer to help by supporting my client and his family in their nutritional choices not just for the young boy, but for the family as a whole. Fortunately, it’s recognized even within the realm of Western Medicine that diet can have a significant impact on Autism.

The Autism Research Institute states, “Dietary intervention is a cornerstone of a evidence-based medical approach, and there is convincing empirical evidence that special diets help many with autism.”2


Unlike families who choose a Paleo diet approach preventatively, who may opt to let their kids eat cake at a birthday party, or go nuts with their Halloween candy in order to not create food/social issues (and believe me, as a child of a hippie mom who was given raisins as a treat and whole wheat carrot cake on her birthday, I know what it’s like to be odd man out!), when a child or family member has a diagnosis such as Autism or Celiac disease, the occasional cake or candy not an option.


The Autism Research Society offers a free guide3 entitled Why My Child is on a Special Diet and sums it up quite succinctly in big, bold red letters that there’s no vacation from this diet, which specifically excludes gluten and casein and all things containing it.


But here’s the good news: While the message may come across as punitive, it’s no different from the message individuals gets when they find out they have Celiac disease, or, like me, without an actual diagnosis, simply grow tired of being sick all the time and discover that by not eating foods like gluten, grains, dairy, and beans, they actually can determine whether or not they’re feeling awful, or incredible!


This is precisely why I tend to get a bit annoyed by the likes of certain publications that come across as a bit whiney, for lack of a better word. Kind of like “Woe is me…I can no longer eat gluten…but wait! I found a way to make brownies using almond flour instead! The world is saved!”




The idea is not to feel dismayed about needing to avoid gluten and casein, but thrilled to have the opportunity to challenge the progression of illness.


The tips below may help transition the whole family into a healthier Paleo diet regime that will not only address Autism, but also keep the whole family energized and at their best!


  1. Get the kids involved. Have the littlest ones choose recipes from the pretty, bright pictures in a Paleo cookbook and ask the older ones to help wash veggies, toss salads and help in the kitchen.


  1. Grow a garden. By seeing the growth of something from seed to edible plant and understanding where food comes from, a whole new understanding arises of why it’s oh so important to eat real, fresh food.


  1. Talk openly with the kids and explain why you’re taking this approach. Often, we don’t give kids credibility for all their capable.  They might surprise you!


By following a True Paleo regime, the sky’s the limit.  It would be impossible to tally up the number of options one could create with all the fresh vegetables, wild proteins and healthy fats your heart desired, so really, this is a good thing on all fronts.