Diet gains focus in ADHD, autism
Israel Martinez, 6, who has autism, has made progress on a new diet. His mother calls the changes "quick, remarkable."
Changed eating regimen appears to help children
Brandon had always been a handful at home. But when he started school, his problems spiraled out of control.
Hyper. Disrupting the class. Unable to focus. Trouble learning to read. Trouble making friends. Teachers complaining.
It went on four long years - through third grade. Finally, a year ago, a local doctor stepped in and changed Brandon's diet. Took him off sugar, chocolate, wheat cereal, anything with red dye. Added a daily multivitamin and omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil) supplements.
"The turnaround was tremendous," said his mother, Dellma Valles. "He's starting to sleep through the night; he's much more calm during the day. He's getting decent grades, and he's caught up in reading."
Unlike so many kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - the most common childhood psychiatric disorder in the nation - Brandon, now 9, has never had to take Ritalin or any psychoactive stimulant drug to curb his behavior.
"What a blessing," his mother said.
She is among a growing number of parents who, along with their doctors, are beginning to accept and benefit from nutritional treatment for today's exploding behavioral plagues of childhood - attention-deficit disorders and autism.
For reasons not well understood, both problems have increased dramatically in the past decade. Attention-deficit problems affect 5 to 10 percent of children, and autism, a more severe brain-damaging syndrome, hits one of 166 U.S. kids, about 0.6 percent.
Although special, sometimes extreme, diets long have been advocated for both problems, only recently has nutrition begun to reach mainstream treatment. And perhaps surprisingly, many dietary changes now recommended for attention deficit are similar to those used to lessen the effects of autism, which can emotionally detach a child from the world and cause lifelong problems.
"There is so much wrong, so much shortfall in what children eat today that we have to pay close attention to what it's doing to them," said Dr. Dorothy Johnson, a Tucson behavioral pediatrician who specializes in the disorders.
When faced with either problem in a child, Johnson immediately eliminates foods with artificial colorings, additive and preservatives, and strongly recommends cutting processed and refined foods.
"That's not easy," she said. "But I tell parents to shop around the outside aisles of the grocery store, where the fresh foods are. I want to see every child eating a colorful plate of natural food."
Johnson doesn't embrace all dietary changes proposed for the disorders, such as completely cutting wheat and dairy, and, in some cases, eggs, citrus, corn, nuts and soy. And she remains a strong advocate of the benefit of proven stimulant drugs for severe ADD and ADHD.
But there are no drugs for autism, a complex neurological disorder that can cause devastating behavioral effects. Rachel Johnson saw almost all of them in her son, Israel Martinez, now 6, starting at 14 months.
"He started regressing," she said. "He couldn't do a lot of the things he did before."
By age 4, he had stopped talking, become disconnected from his mother, and defiant, prone to screaming fits. He also had terrible diarrhea. "It just seemed like he was in his own world," his mother said. "No one could reach him."
With Israel all but unfit for school, Johnson took him to Dr. Sanford Newmark - a Tucson pediatrician trained in integrative medicine, combining mainstream and alternative treatment. Newmark also treated Brandon Valles.
After a lengthy evaluation, he took Israel off all wheat and dairy - known as the gluten-free/casein-free diet.
"One month of that, and he was a different child," Newmark said. "He was more awake, more interactive, his language improved, the repetitive behaviors stopped, and the diarrhea was over."
Israel also started taking a multivitamin and zinc and omega-3 fatty acid supplements, in the form of fish oils. He can eat small amounts of wheat.
"The changes were so quick and so remarkable," said his mother, who especially credited the omega-3. "He's a much calmer, happier child."
Israel continues conventional treatment for autism - speech, occupational and behavioral therapies, which Newmark also advocates.
"When you see kids with severe autism, the situation is quite terrible," he said. "It's so discouraging for the parents. But there is no cookie-cutter answer for these kids. Autism is a wide-spectrum disorder, and each child is different."
Though many of the kids he's treated for ADD and autism have shown dramatic improvement, Newmark also has seen "nothing happen."
"But I have the feeling that if I got to these children earlier, when they're only 1 or 2, it would be more successful."
No one knows how many attention-deficit or autistic kids respond to diet changes. Estimates range from 20 to 60 percent. But there is little mention of nutritional therapies in treatments listed by the National Institutes of Mental Health or the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.
"You will find some doctors who tell you it's a waste of time, but others who say if you do nothing else, change the diet," said Maria Bardach, whose autistic daughter Marley, 10, went off wheat and dairy, eating only organic food, six years ago.
That ended her diarrhea, constipation and repetitive hand movements. She became more animated.
"With some kids, there are miracles. They are rare, but they happen," she said. "It's one intervention that's not harmful. It's actually very healthy for the whole family."