This week’s “Got Questions” answer comes from pediatric psychiatrist Joseph Horrigan, M.D., Autism Speaks assistant vice president, head of medical research.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common among those with autism, and in many cases, they relate to overly restricted eating habits.
This is understandable as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are commonly associated with gastrointestinal problems and sensory issues with food textures and smells. It is also possible that the underlying biology of autism may cause deficiencies in the digestion of certain foods, which could affect vitamin intake. For example, a recent study documented that some children with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances have impaired carbohydrate digestion. Normal growth and good health depend on the body absorbing and metabolizing the vitamins and minerals that are part of a well-rounded diet.
In addition, studies have identified several examples of nutrient deficiencies affecting thinking and behavior – for example, the ability to focus or stay alert in school. Also, nutrient deficiencies such as those involving omega 3 fatty acids may worsen behavioral symptoms such as irritability and hyperactivity. As such, it’s entirely possible that taking supplements may improve such symptoms in some individuals with ASD - especially if the individual has clinical or laboratory evidence of low levels of crucial vitamins, minerals or other nutrients.
In recent years, researchers have looked deeper into how well particular vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements lessen the severity or intensity of core autism symptoms – namely communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive behavior.
The results of these clinical studies have been mixed. One recent large study examined the effect of an over-the-counter supplement called Syndion on 141 children and adults with autism, as compared to the effects of a placebo pill. The researchers reported that the product effectively raised levels of vitamins and minerals in the blood. They also showed that it produced no significant side effects during the 12-week study. The study did not demonstrate meaningful improvements in autism symptoms according to three out of the four assessment tools used. It did, however, show modest but statistically significant improvements on a fourth measure (the Parental Global Impressions-Revised questionnaire) in terms of hyperactivity, tantrums and receptive language.
When interpreting the meaningfulness of these results, readers may take note that the two lead authors were also the developers of the commercial product being tested. Despite the limitations of this study, it raises important questions as to whether vitamins may be helpful in addressing the core symptoms of autism. It is important to continue supporting research that will provide parents and individuals with clear answers about the value of vitamins, minerals and other nutritional supplements in ASD. Autism Speaks is currently funding several projects to this end, including a new study investigating the possible role of carnitine deficiency in some individuals with ASD.
(Carnitine is a nutrient used by cells to process fats and produce energy. It is abundant in red meat and dairy products, but some individuals appear to have difficulties absorbing and/or metabolizing it.) We are also funding an ongoing collaborative project, through five Autism Treatment Network sites, to collect extensive information on the dietary intake and nutritional status of children with ASD. If you are worried that you or your child may have a nutritional deficiency, supplements may be a good option to consider.
It is important that you consult with your doctor about brands and dosages. Supplements vary in quality and potency, and some may have harmfully excessive levels of certain vitamins, minerals or other ingredients.