LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - It's become a popular lifestyle trend for some folks, but gluten free is more than a diet fad. It's a lifestyle change for several people, especially those who have trouble digesting it.
While many people go on gluten free diets to curb celiac disease issues, some East Texas families are starting to realize that a gluten free diet has changed the lives of their autistic children.
"When we started the diet, we eliminated the [foods] that he is allergic or sensitive to and replenished that with foods that are okay with him and that made a whole difference," Majal Minguez said.
Minguez's 8-year-old son Axel was first diagnosed with autism, which is a disorder that can cause impairment of social interaction and problems with verbal and non-verbal communication.
"Kids with autism, the majority of them communicate visually so if you would tell them 'Axel, I need you to sit down because the TV lady is coming,' to them that may be 'blah, blah, blah Axel.' That's all they hear, but when you communicate with pictures they're very visual learners and they look at it and they're like ah! It clicks in their heads," Minguez said.
Minguez decided to put Axel on the gluten free and case-in free diet, which excludes foods made out of wheat and dairy, after seeing a autism specialist and nutritionist in the Dallas area.
"When we did that we felt like his world slowly opened to us and let us in and participate in his play and in his life," Minguez said.
She says the diet has helped Axel focus more in school and he is now able to sit down and finish a task with adult supervision.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Young, the mother of 10-year-old Madison, says the gluten free, case-in free diet has turned her daughter's life around.
"The physician who diagnosed her basically told me that by the time she got in high school she would have better mechanisms and that she would be doing a lot better by the time she reached high school age. That just wasn't good enough for me," Young said. "I wasn't going to wait until she was 16 or 17 years old for her to feel better and do better and all that stuff so I just set out on a mission to try and figure out what was going to help her and that was one of the first things I came across."
Young says it took about four weeks before she noticed improvement, but now Madison is able to interact better with other kids and her tantrums have stopped.
"It was a dramatic turnaround. She had lost eye contact and she had that back. [The diet] was what brought her back to us," Young said.
Minguez says one of the reasons why autistic kids respond well to the diet is because most autistic kids suffer from gastrointestinal problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is accompanied by chronic abdominal pain and bloating, Colitis, which is the inflammation of the colon, and food allergies.
She says autistic children respond differently to food allergies and instead of reacting in the way a normal person would they either have tantrums, inattention or anxiety.
"When you give [gluten] to the kids, you are giving them morphine pretty much. That's why those kids are pretty much so hyper. It's that morphine like substance that they cannot digest," Minguez said.
While there are several scientific studies that look into the link between gluten and autism, doctors and clinical nutritrionist aren't sure if the diet is the hero.
"The research is not really clear. There is some research that does suggest that this diet does improve symptoms and certainly we want to value the parents that are reporting this, but sometimes science is slow to catch up with these kind of things. But bottom line is today researchers are saying there is more to learn about this connection between gluten and autism," Tim Scallon, a clinical nutritionist for the Polk Learning Center at Memorial Hospital in Lufkin, said.
But Dr. James Young, Madison's father and a cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon, says there is no doubt in his mind that the diet works.
Dr. Young said kids do crave gluten, but for autistic kids the gluten turns the kids essentially into zombies. It makes them act drugged. He says going gluten free isn't easy, but diving into it 100 percent is the only way to see a difference in your child's behavior.
However, Minguez says her son Axel is even allergic to some of the gluten and case-in free products. She said the best way to tell what your child is allergic to is to get a test done.
Minguez does admit that it's not accurate that gluten free and case-in diets will help every autistic child, but it's worth a try.