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Diet and Kids with Special Needs

Can a change in food intake help some children with special needs? The medical jury may be out, but here's a look at three different approaches

A growing number of parents believe restrictive diets can help their kids with special needs. Proponents say changing what children eat can help conditions like autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and seizures.

With no major study indicating a clear pattern, the mainstream medical community is on the fence. But there are case-by-case examples of profound improvements for some who've tried a food fix. Here's a closer look at three approaches.

Specific Carbohydrate Diet

This diet is touted as a way to recover from chronic conditions including autism, ADHD, digestive disorders, Crohn's disease, allergies and more.

The premise is that there's an important "balance" between the microbes that live in the body's digestive system, notes Cheryl Steinberg, an Oakland County wellness consultant and SCD startup specialist. She also teaches a family-oriented SCD class at The Birmingham Community House.

"The key to healing the gut properly is to restore a healthy bacteria/yeast balance," she says. In SCD, processed foods are not permitted in any form. The diet consists mostly of protein from beans, eggs, fish and fresh meats, a large variety of fresh (not canned) fruits and vegetables and natural honey.

Sugars, cooking oil, starches and corn syrup are common additives not allowed. Wheat, pasta and breakfast cereals should be avoided, plus most commercial dairy products. Coconut milk and special flours from ground nuts are allowed, and can be used to make baked goods.

It's still unknown if a change in diet will be embraced as primary means for combating special needs issues. But there are outspoken proponents like actress Jenny McCarthy, whose son Evan's autistic symptoms were alleviated by an SCD-like diet and vitamin regime.

Locally, Mark Kroll, an automotive engineer in Oakland County, has used SCD for his 5-year-old son, Hayden, who has ASD symptoms. The symptoms have faded – "He is now the most affectionate kid," Kroll says –though Hayden is not yet completely healed.

Kroll admits SCD is not always easy to follow. "Hayden was a magnet to foods not allowed," he says. "We had to overcome the taste for sugars." Also, sources of sugars that may not be suspected, like toothpaste, have to be eliminated, Kroll says, with non-sugar variations substituted.

Feingold diet

In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold developed a diet based on the theory that chemicals and dyes found in many foods cause ADHD. Since then, the Feingold diet has been touted by supporters as a way to decrease ADHD symptoms, most of which occur before age 7.

Critics say the diet teaches kids their actions and school performance are related to what they eat instead of their efforts at change.

Some believe sugar may worsen ADHD symptoms. Study results are confusing. Most current research indicates only a small percentage of ADHD kids respond to a sugar- and additive-free diet. In a 2005 study for the California-based Bamford-Lahey Children's Foundation, researchers concluded it's worth recommending.

Gretchen Cane of Fraser is glad she took that advice for her son. Diagnosed with ADHD at age 5, Tyler was "out of control," says Cane. When Cane told her son's doctor that she wanted to try a natural approach to treating Tyler's ADHD, he suggested the Feingold diet.

"He was very skeptical about it, and basically told me I was probably wasting my time," she says. "It took a while to see the effects. But we stuck with it. Over time, little by little, it transformed him."

Ketogenic diet

Used regularly since around 1920 to treat those with seizures, a ketogenic diet is high in fat and protein and contains very little carbohydrates. It forces the body to use fats as a primary fuel source, rather than sugars (glucose) from carbs. Ketones are a byproduct of fat metabolism (fat burning).

Children's Hospital of Michigan uses the diet – and others that are not as restrictive, like a modified Atkin's diet and a low-glycemic index diet – to manage seizures.

A ketogenic diet may not be for everyone. Depriving the body of carbs can cause strain, especially liver and kidney function. Fluids are also restricted. Many feel very tired during the first few weeks. Other side effects can include kidney stones, heart enlargement and blood abnormalities.

The Epilepsy Foundation notes the diet is most effective for myoclonic seizures. About one-third of children who can maintain the diet become seizure-free. The reasons are unknown.

The diet must be followed under careful supervision. "Our program does hospitalize children for 2 or 3 days initially," says Rebecca Sparks, a registered dietician with Children's. Food intake and lab work is monitored, and potential side effects are closely watched during this time.

Parents considering any diet to treat their child must keep any risk as low as possible – and discuss any plans with their healthcare provider.

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Aug 5, 2010 05:18 pm
 Posted by  Lendingahand

Lately, I have met so many parents that have children with autism spectrum disorder. I understand treatment programs are very costly and a lot of insurances don't cover the treatments making it very costly on the parents to seek help for their children.

Does anyone know of an organization that may offer some kind of financial support?

Jun 26, 2014 03:27 am
 Posted by  Zachary

Hi my name is Mandy I am 33 years old and a single mother to a 7 year old who will be 8 in Aug little boy name Zachary. He was diagnosed with a global developmental delay with significant speech and language disorder. Strabismus and behavior difficulties. His school close to home wanted me to put him in a school further away from home cause they have a special program for special needs kids the program was only allowed 4 kids in this class one teacher and 4 EA's there would also be a speech therapist and a behavior therapist. Zachary has a very hard time with people that he doesn't know and don't know him so I wasn't too sure if I wanted to do this but the school seemed so excited for him and for me and kept saying what a great opportunity it was so I decided to have him go to this other school. I am so happy that I made this change for my son His speech is getting a lot better trying to say more words and put more words together!! But his behaviour isn't really any better but at times he is great at school and at home and then other times he's really bad at school and at home sometimes he's good at school and bad at bad home. because of his speech at times I can't understand him the first time he says something and he will have to try and say it again or show me a picture if he can these days he gets so mad so fast when I don't understand him right away and he just seems to be getting mad a lot and very frustrated easily where I have seen him take his time and try saying the word again and then try and show me I know he is capable of doing that. And I was thinking what if it's his diet that is making him more moody and frustrated less relaxed. Is there any way you can please help me? Just wondering what foods to give him that could help and what foods to stay away from. Thanks so much Mandy

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