In the largest study of its kind, researchers found no link between autism and celiac disease, a severe intestinal disorder triggered by an immune reaction to gluten. However, the study also confirmed a strong association between autism and the presence of antibodies to gluten. Such antibodies indicate a significant immune reaction to the protein, which is found most commonly in wheat.
“In the past, we have had the believers and nonbelievers when it came to the role of gluten in autism,” comments gastroenterologist Alessio Fasano. “Hopefully this paper can clarify, once and for all, that a subset of those with autism has gluten sensitivity, a condition triggered by gluten but distinct from celiac disease.” Dr. Fasano is chief of pediatric gastroenterology at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children, home of the Lurie Center for Autism, an Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network site.
Over the last decade, a suggested link between autism and celiac disease grew from a few case reports and the frequency of severe GI distress among children with autism. In addition, many parents of children with autism reported improvement when they switched their children to gluten-free diets.
Subsequent studies found no increased prevalence of celiac disease among those with autism. This led skeptics to discount the parent reports. At the same time, other studies found a high occurrence of gluten-related antibodies among children with autism and GI distress. (More on these studies, made possible in part by Autism Speaks resources, here and here.)
“The new study is important in that it finally puts two and two together,” Dr. Fasano says. Antibody tests may be one way to identify individuals – including those with autism – who may benefit from gluten-free diets, he adds. Dr. Fasano also calls for funding of clinical trials that can determine whether such diets can help relieve not only GI issues but also behavioral symptoms in individuals with autism who have gluten sensitivity.