How Diet Intervention Helped My Child's Autism Recovery

By Kris Barrett

Posted  June 5 2017 | 0 Shares

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Twelve years ago, my son Tim was diagnosed with autism. He was a very sick little boy and had a lot of health issues as well as behavioural issues. I want to share with you today how diet intervention, combined with behavioural therapies, helped my son live a normal life.

Tim is now fully mainstreamed in year 9. He’s in the Airforce Cadets and he is really, really healthy. Our experiences with him led me on a journey to study holistic nutrition and now I work alongside families to help them make the same food and lifestyle changes that we did which transformed out whole lives – our family’s life as well as my sons life.

I’m someone who couldn’t even make a packet cake — I wasn’t a cook, so if I have been able to make this work, anyone can!

I think, unfortunately the number of spectrum related cases are going up. Recently I’ve heard that the new number is now one in sixty three in Australia, even though the government hasn’t published that yet, and just look back at when my son was diagnosed, it was one in four hundred and something and we’ve gone all the way to one in sixty three, there are predictions that by 2025 that 50% of boys in the western world are going to have an autism spectrum disorder. It’s just staggering.

I strongly believe it has to be environmental. You can’t have a genetic epidemic in this short amount of time, you know that just doesn’t make sense. I don’t believe it’s from better diagnosis. Where all the 50-year-old autistic people that needed special education and all the rest? They weren’t there. I really think it’s a lot of environmental, I think it’s additives, I think it’s things like wifi, I think it’s the air we breathe, the chemicals in our soil that our food’s growing in. I think there’s just a real combination of things, but I think the environment has to account for a lot of that.

How are gut health and behaviour linked?

Autism was always thought of as a brain disorder and it’s only fairly recently that Dr Martha Herbert from Harvard actually described all of the behavioural symptoms as being “downstream” from the brain. So what’s going on is, the child’s digestive and immune and detox systems aren’t working properly and then the behavioural systems are actually downstream from those symptoms — that is, being caused from those processes that are not working properly.

So my son, for example: He didn’t just have autism, he was also terribly unwell. He had asthma and eczema, and was pretty much on antibiotics from day one for ear infections. It was just constant antibiotics for ear infection after ear infection after ear infection. Diarrhoea — we were told it was (just) toddler diarrhoea. We were told that all of those symptoms were just part of autism. When we started looking at gut and looking at food, and we started the diet intervention, instantly his eczema went, his asthma went, his ear infections went, his diarrhoea reduced, and I realised this was amazing.

The behavioural symptoms didn’t improve overnight, but what happened with his health was just unbelievable. So that’s when I really started to think … What’s going on? There’s something here, you know? What’s going into the gut was not just causing behavioural problems but it was responsible for all those health issues. I just thought, well, even if I’d only resolved his health issues, I’m already ahead because we’d been at it years and years and had specialists and doctors and drugs and antibiotics and everything and we just hadn’t gotten anywhere!

What happened when you went to the GP with all these issues?

The diarrhoea was toddler diarrhoea. Toddler diarrhoea! We were told that that was quite normal. Asthma — oh well, asthma must run in your family, you know it must be somewhere. Ear infections? Yeah, kids get ear infections. The GP’s told us “Oh, he’s autistic,” and there is nothing you can do about it other than do some speech therapy and there’s a special education kindy that you can enroll him in. And that’s what we walked away with.

If you hadn’t dedicated your life to a diet intervention and lifestyle changes, where do you think Tim would be today?

Well, I have no doubt. I don’t even know if I’d like to go there, to be honest. He’d still be sick — he was just so unwell and nothing — all the speech therapy in the world and all the behavioural therapy in the world was not going to fix this poor child’s health! Once we got his health fixed, he was able to respond to the behavioural therapy.

He was actually able to learn as he wasn’t feeling so crappy. It makes me feel sick to think about it.

What is leaky gut?

What happens with leaky gut is when things come into the body, the gut and the immune system sort of go, ok, “do I know what you are? Yes, I know what you are and what to do with you.” They are like a gatekeeper: The gut wall is like a gatekeeper, and it will say “OK, let this food through, and we will assimilate the vitamins and nutrients that we need and we know what to do with.”

When the gut is leaky, things go through undigested. Proteins can pretty much go through undigested.

A good digestive system works like this: If you ate something that was 12 paper clips long (imagine that you have 12 paper clips) and then the digestive system would bring it down to just one paper clip big, and then that would go through the gut wall and the body says “yes, I know what to do with you, I can do that.”

In a leaky gut, what happens is it’s not digested properly and instead of being stopped at the gut wall, it goes through as 12 paper clips long. So what goes through is this big, undigested protein, and the body says, “hang on, I don’t know what you are. You’re a foreign invader and I’m going to mount an immune response.” That’s what the immune system should do to a foreign body. So that’s what happens, so all those proteins leak through, then they go straight into the bloodstream.

We know that the gut and the brain are connected by the vagus nerve. There’s the same neuro transmitters in the gut that are in the brain, so of course they’re in the blood stream, they’re everywhere. Sometimes you’re getting gastrointestinal symptoms, sometimes you’re getting behavioural and brain symptoms, and sometimes you’re getting both. That’s the danger of a leaky gut.

Can kids off the spectrum have leaky gut?

Yes. Kids with allergies, asthma, ADHD, learning difficulties — it doesn’t matter that they don’t fit the criteria of an autism diagnosis.

Tell us about the vagus nerve and the gut-brain connection.

I remember when I first heard about diets and was wondering how what I feed him can make any difference to his behaviour. But then when you do understand that the gut and the brain are connected, it makes sense. Just think about some things that we say all the time. When you try and make a decision, sometimes people go, “Listen to your gut”, or people will do something and say “I just have a gut feeling about that”, it’s like “hmmm!”.

There are books that refer to the gut as the second brain. Recent research has also found that most of the neurotransmitters found in the brain are also found in the gut. Plus, the gut and brain are connected by the Vegas nerve, which runs from the base of the spine down to the abdomen.

So, what affects the brain affects the gut, and vice versa. Someone once told me that if you couldn’t remember or you couldn’t grasp it, to think about drinking alcohol. You drink it, and it goes into the gut, but where do you feel the effects? You feel it in the brain. So that’s a nice little analogy and they are definitely connected and what’s affecting one is affecting the other.

How does the gut hold the future to health for any stage of childhood?

The gut holds 70% of your immune system, so for you to have good health you need to have a good gut. From day one — and I only wish I knew then what I know now — it’s imperative that for everything to develop properly, for healthy self-development, and everything, that we have a healthy gut. For mental health, for example: 90% of your body’s serotonin is made in the gut. Serotonin is your feel-good hormone. Serotonin is your get up and go, you feel good, and you’re not anxious or anything. When you have low serotonin, it affects your mood, it affects your bowels.

With kids, if you’ve got constipation and diarrhea issues, sometimes that’s connected to serotonin. Low serotonin affects your cognition, so kids with learning problems could be low. Sleep issues are connected, as well: You actually need melatonin to sleep and serotonin converts into melatonin. If you don’t have enough serotonin to begin with, you’re not feeling good, your bowel’s not good, your cognition’s not good and you’re not converting any into melatonin and then we have all these kids with sleep problems.

Yes, you can give them melatonin, but go back to the gut. If you could correct the gut, get the gut in a really good place, it’s going to produce enough serotonin, it’s going to make the bowel, the mood, and everything good and it’s also going to convert it to melatonin so we sleep. So you always go right back and end up in the gut.

Where do we begin to heal the gut?

The first thing you need to do is remove the irritants to the gut so that we can then give it a chance to heal. We’d study the child’s diet and identify which foods are not playing well with the gut. At the same time, we would be doing things to rebuild the good bacteria in the gut: We could be giving probiotics, good nourishing food, stocks or broths, and fermented foods and things like that.

You need to do the two of those in conjunction. A lot of people attempt a special diet and maybe take away the irritating food; and that’s fine, but that’s only half of the equation, because taking away the food is just taking away the irritation. They need to rebuild the good bacteria so that the gut is in a really nice space.

When we do diet intervention for kids on the spectrum, usually we start with removing gluten and casein. I’d never heard of casein before — remember, I didn’t even make packet cakes in my old life — but casein is the protein in dairy. The lactose is the dairy sugar and casein is the dairy protein. If you have got a leaky gut, the reason why we take the casein and gluten out first is those two compounds. If they go through a leaky gut, gluten turns into a compound called gluta-morphin and casein turns into a compound called casa-morphin. They actually act on the body like morphine which produces an opioid affect. So what happens is, the kids act like they are on drugs. They get foggy thinking.

“No Cows Today” is a personal account of my family’s story. It is a story of our struggles and our triumphs, from a very, very sick little boy who had a very bleak outlook. We were told not to expect much from him. It’s a long road and all the gory details are in there. I wrote that just to show people that there is hope and that there is hope for recovery – whatever that looks like for your child. I think that recovery is your child being as happy and healthy as they can be. This book was written to show you that it can be done.kris barrett

I’ve just recently written a book called “Hi Thrive Me” and it’s a five step guide to helping kids with autism to live happier healthier lives. That’s my five-step process that I take all my clients through: diet intervention and changing their lifestyle. This is written to be very simple and very practical, so that you can sustain these changes. Because some people think, oh my goodness, my kids is on the spectrum, he only eats five foods . So did my son — and they all had to go when we changed diets. And you know, you want to be able to go out and travel with them and go to parties and things like that. So, I approach this from a very practical level to show parents that they can do it in the real world.

Was this helpful? Please email us with any questions at [email protected]

Reviewed by Kris Barrett 5 June 2017 references
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This document has been developed and peer reviewed by a KIDS HEALTH Advisory Board Representative and is based on expert opinion and the available published literature at the time of review. Information contained in this document is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.

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How Diet Intervention Helped My Child’s Autism Recovery

Twelve years ago, my son Tim was diagnosed with autism. He was a very sick little boy and had a lot of health issues as well as behavioural issues. I want to share with you today how diet intervention, combined with behavioural therapies, helped my son live a normal life.

Tim is now fully mainstreamed in year 9. He’s in the Airforce Cadets and he is really, really healthy. Our experiences with him led me on a journey to study holistic nutrition and now I work alongside families to help them make the same food and lifestyle changes that we did which transformed out whole lives – our family’s life as well as my sons life.

I’m someone who couldn’t even make a packet cake — I wasn’t a cook, so if I have been able to make this work, anyone can!

I think, unfortunately the number of spectrum related cases are going up. Recently I’ve heard that the new number is now one in sixty three in Australia, even though the government hasn’t published that yet, and just look back at when my son was diagnosed, it was one in four hundred and something and we’ve gone all the way to one in sixty three, there are predictions that by 2025 that 50% of boys in the western world are going to have an autism spectrum disorder. It’s just staggering.

I strongly believe it has to be environmental. You can’t have a genetic epidemic in this short amount of time, you know that just doesn’t make sense. I don’t believe it’s from better diagnosis. Where all the 50-year-old autistic people that needed special education and all the rest? They weren’t there. I really think it’s a lot of environmental, I think it’s additives, I think it’s things like wifi, I think it’s the air we breathe, the chemicals in our soil that our food’s growing in. I think there’s just a real combination of things, but I think the environment has to account for a lot of that.

How are gut health and behaviour linked?

Autism was always thought of as a brain disorder and it’s only fairly recently that Dr Martha Herbert from Harvard actually described all of the behavioural symptoms as being “downstream” from the brain. So what’s going on is, the child’s digestive and immune and detox systems aren’t working properly and then the behavioural systems are actually downstream from those symptoms — that is, being caused from those processes that are not working properly.

So my son, for example: He didn’t just have autism, he was also terribly unwell. He had asthma and eczema, and was pretty much on antibiotics from day one for ear infections. It was just constant antibiotics for ear infection after ear infection after ear infection. Diarrhoea — we were told it was (just) toddler diarrhoea. We were told that all of those symptoms were just part of autism. When we started looking at gut and looking at food, and we started the diet intervention, instantly his eczema went, his asthma went, his ear infections went, his diarrhoea reduced, and I realised this was amazing.

The behavioural symptoms didn’t improve overnight, but what happened with his health was just unbelievable. So that’s when I really started to think … What’s going on? There’s something here, you know? What’s going into the gut was not just causing behavioural problems but it was responsible for all those health issues. I just thought, well, even if I’d only resolved his health issues, I’m already ahead because we’d been at it years and years and had specialists and doctors and drugs and antibiotics and everything and we just hadn’t gotten anywhere!

What happened when you went to the GP with all these issues?

The diarrhoea was toddler diarrhoea. Toddler diarrhoea! We were told that that was quite normal. Asthma — oh well, asthma must run in your family, you know it must be somewhere. Ear infections? Yeah, kids get ear infections. The GP’s told us “Oh, he’s autistic,” and there is nothing you can do about it other than do some speech therapy and there’s a special education kindy that you can enroll him in. And that’s what we walked away with.

If you hadn’t dedicated your life to a diet intervention and lifestyle changes, where do you think Tim would be today?

Well, I have no doubt. I don’t even know if I’d like to go there, to be honest. He’d still be sick — he was just so unwell and nothing — all the speech therapy in the world and all the behavioural therapy in the world was not going to fix this poor child’s health! Once we got his health fixed, he was able to respond to the behavioural therapy.

He was actually able to learn as he wasn’t feeling so crappy. It makes me feel sick to think about it.

What is leaky gut?

What happens with leaky gut is when things come into the body, the gut and the immune system sort of go, ok, “do I know what you are? Yes, I know what you are and what to do with you.” They are like a gatekeeper: The gut wall is like a gatekeeper, and it will say “OK, let this food through, and we will assimilate the vitamins and nutrients that we need and we know what to do with.”

When the gut is leaky, things go through undigested. Proteins can pretty much go through undigested.

A good digestive system works like this: If you ate something that was 12 paper clips long (imagine that you have 12 paper clips) and then the digestive system would bring it down to just one paper clip big, and then that would go through the gut wall and the body says “yes, I know what to do with you, I can do that.”

In a leaky gut, what happens is it’s not digested properly and instead of being stopped at the gut wall, it goes through as 12 paper clips long. So what goes through is this big, undigested protein, and the body says, “hang on, I don’t know what you are. You’re a foreign invader and I’m going to mount an immune response.” That’s what the immune system should do to a foreign body. So that’s what happens, so all those proteins leak through, then they go straight into the bloodstream.

We know that the gut and the brain are connected by the vagus nerve. There’s the same neuro transmitters in the gut that are in the brain, so of course they’re in the blood stream, they’re everywhere. Sometimes you’re getting gastrointestinal symptoms, sometimes you’re getting behavioural and brain symptoms, and sometimes you’re getting both. That’s the danger of a leaky gut.

Can kids off the spectrum have leaky gut?

Yes. Kids with allergies, asthma, ADHD, learning difficulties — it doesn’t matter that they don’t fit the criteria of an autism diagnosis.

Tell us about the vagus nerve and the gut-brain connection.

I remember when I first heard about diets and was wondering how what I feed him can make any difference to his behaviour. But then when you do understand that the gut and the brain are connected, it makes sense. Just think about some things that we say all the time. When you try and make a decision, sometimes people go, “Listen to your gut”, or people will do something and say “I just have a gut feeling about that”, it’s like “hmmm!”.

There are books that refer to the gut as the second brain. Recent research has also found that most of the neurotransmitters found in the brain are also found in the gut. Plus, the gut and brain are connected by the Vegas nerve, which runs from the base of the spine down to the abdomen.

So, what affects the brain affects the gut, and vice versa. Someone once told me that if you couldn’t remember or you couldn’t grasp it, to think about drinking alcohol. You drink it, and it goes into the gut, but where do you feel the effects? You feel it in the brain. So that’s a nice little analogy and they are definitely connected and what’s affecting one is affecting the other.

How does the gut hold the future to health for any stage of childhood?

The gut holds 70% of your immune system, so for you to have good health you need to have a good gut. From day one — and I only wish I knew then what I know now — it’s imperative that for everything to develop properly, for healthy self-development, and everything, that we have a healthy gut. For mental health, for example: 90% of your body’s serotonin is made in the gut. Serotonin is your feel-good hormone. Serotonin is your get up and go, you feel good, and you’re not anxious or anything. When you have low serotonin, it affects your mood, it affects your bowels.

With kids, if you’ve got constipation and diarrhea issues, sometimes that’s connected to serotonin. Low serotonin affects your cognition, so kids with learning problems could be low. Sleep issues are connected, as well: You actually need melatonin to sleep and serotonin converts into melatonin. If you don’t have enough serotonin to begin with, you’re not feeling good, your bowel’s not good, your cognition’s not good and you’re not converting any into melatonin and then we have all these kids with sleep problems.

Yes, you can give them melatonin, but go back to the gut. If you could correct the gut, get the gut in a really good place, it’s going to produce enough serotonin, it’s going to make the bowel, the mood, and everything good and it’s also going to convert it to melatonin so we sleep. So you always go right back and end up in the gut.

Where do we begin to heal the gut?

The first thing you need to do is remove the irritants to the gut so that we can then give it a chance to heal. We’d study the child’s diet and identify which foods are not playing well with the gut. At the same time, we would be doing things to rebuild the good bacteria in the gut: We could be giving probiotics, good nourishing food, stocks or broths, and fermented foods and things like that.

You need to do the two of those in conjunction. A lot of people attempt a special diet and maybe take away the irritating food; and that’s fine, but that’s only half of the equation, because taking away the food is just taking away the irritation. They need to rebuild the good bacteria so that the gut is in a really nice space.

When we do diet intervention for kids on the spectrum, usually we start with removing gluten and casein. I’d never heard of casein before — remember, I didn’t even make packet cakes in my old life — but casein is the protein in dairy. The lactose is the dairy sugar and casein is the dairy protein. If you have got a leaky gut, the reason why we take the casein and gluten out first is those two compounds. If they go through a leaky gut, gluten turns into a compound called gluta-morphin and casein turns into a compound called casa-morphin. They actually act on the body like morphine which produces an opioid affect. So what happens is, the kids act like they are on drugs. They get foggy thinking.

“No Cows Today” is a personal account of my family’s story. It is a story of our struggles and our triumphs, from a very, very sick little boy who had a very bleak outlook. We were told not to expect much from him. It’s a long road and all the gory details are in there. I wrote that just to show people that there is hope and that there is hope for recovery – whatever that looks like for your child. I think that recovery is your child being as happy and healthy as they can be. This book was written to show you that it can be done.kris barrett

I’ve just recently written a book called “Hi Thrive Me” and it’s a five step guide to helping kids with autism to live happier healthier lives. That’s my five-step process that I take all my clients through: diet intervention and changing their lifestyle. This is written to be very simple and very practical, so that you can sustain these changes. Because some people think, oh my goodness, my kids is on the spectrum, he only eats five foods . So did my son — and they all had to go when we changed diets. And you know, you want to be able to go out and travel with them and go to parties and things like that. So, I approach this from a very practical level to show parents that they can do it in the real world.

Was this helpful? Please email us with any questions at [email protected]

Reviewed by Lisa Kelly 5 June 2017
references
  • current version

  • PEER REVIEWER

  • Doc id

  • next review

This document has been developed and peer reviewed by a KIDS HEALTH Advisory Board Representative and is based on expert opinion and the available published literature at the time of review. Information contained in this document is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.

make a comment

0 comments

more articles by Kris Barrett

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latest articles

view more

MEET THE EXPERTS

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