Many autistic children struggle with chronic illness from a young age.
It may start as early as in utero and is often diagnosed within the first year and a half of life. These children often live with extreme inflammation in their bodies.
Generally speaking, kids with autism have a discrete immune dysfunction that can be associated with mitochondrial dysfunction and inefficiencies in methylation leading to a pro-inflammatory character.
People in a chronic inflammatory state may also chronic gut issues. Whether the problems start in the gut or gut problems are the result of the inflammation usually isn’t known without advanced testing. No matter which came first, the result of gut problems is reduced nutrient absorption and decreased utilization of nutrients.
Another factor that could exacerbate nutritional deficiency in children with autism is a sensory processing disorder. If a child has an adverse reaction to certain smells, tastes, and textures, it could result in a limited diet.
Parents may believe that it’s alright to let their kids eat only a few foods or that their diet, which may be mostly made up of simple carbs, isn’t a problem. For many years the food pyramid stated that 50% of our diet should be carbs and many people still follow this outdated guidance. Especially for someone dealing with gut issues and nutrient deficiencies, starchy foods can make the problem worse.
It requires a lot of nutrients to remain in a chronic inflammatory state. For this reason, many children with autism have severe vitamin D deficiencies. Even kids who spend a lot of time out in the sun may have low levels of vitamin D. It’s being exhausted to maintain the inflammatory state.
Supplementing with 5,000 to 10,000 units each day would usually raise vitamin D levels, but in kids with autism, their nutrient levels may not rise enough with the same amount of vitamin D you’d give to a child that is outside of the autism spectrum.
Some kids in the autism spectrum have a cerebral folic deficiency, which is an autoimmune disorder. It shows up more frequently in autistic kids. These children’s bodies make antibodies to folate, preventing it from penetrating into the blood-brain barrier.
It may be necessary to supplement folinic acid or other activated forms of folate in an amount that’s thousands of percent higher than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) to combat this problem.
Methylated B Vitamins
A general inefficiency in methylation, which is the economy of metabolism, requires additional B vitamins. This would include B12, folate, B6, and B1. Without efficient methylation, it’s challenging to get a child into a healthy state. DMG is another essential nutrient that can be used to support B family vitamins and methylation pathways.
It is common for children within the autism spectrum to have Zinc deficiencies. As this essential mineral affects taste and smell, supplementing can help increase the variety of foods a child will eat. A critical co-factor for hundreds of metabolic pathways in the body.
Magnesium is another essential co-factor for countless metabolic pathways in the body. A side-effect of magnesium supplementation is that it moves the bowels. So magnesium supplementation is critical for children with chronic constipation. Magnesium can also help with brain fog, anxiety, agitation, and irritability.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Diets high in fish aren’t typical for most children, so it’s crucial to supplement omega 3 fatty acids to support neurological health. This can also help with dry hair and skin, problems focusing on the tasks and attention span. It may take a few months to see results with omega 3 fatty acid supplementation takes time to change the fatty acid content of the cell membrane.
When nutritional therapies start to work to help “wake up” an autistic child, they become more engaged in their surroundings. This may lead to increased speech and the ability to communicate with parents, family members, therapists, and teachers. Improved eye contact, social engagement, and communication for purposes other than getting their needs met are signs that therapies are working.
Another indication that nutritional therapies are useful is a reduction in self-soothing behaviors, which indicates a decrease in the overall levels of inflammation in the brain.
Kids who are well past the regular potty-training age may be able to attain some age-appropriate activities of daily living when their gut begins working correctly. Things they were cognitively capable of but didn’t have the skills or mitochondrial energy efficiency to achieve may become attainable. This can include everything from being able to use the bathroom on their own to the development of age-appropriate social skills.
With a broad-spectrum approach, a functional medicine doctor may try to locate the source of the inflammation and reverse it. However, with a young child presenting symptoms of autism, it’s essential to act quickly. Gut health is a primary concern because, without it, supplements can’t do their job.
Some doctors prefer to move through the process faster by correcting everything they can and then working on the subtler points with additional testing or by withdrawing single supplements to measure their effectiveness better.
Mitochondrial support, methylation support, gut support, and fish oil are reasonable first steps to helping a child with autism manage their symptoms.
Armen Nikogosian, MD practices functional and integrative medicine in Henderson, Nevada. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) and the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs (MAPS). His practice focuses on treatment of complex medical conditions with a special emphasis on Autism Spectrum Disorder in children and autoimmune conditions in adults.