Some autism experts believe that the gastrointestinal issues and food intolerance in autism points to a link between celiac disease and autism. Recent studies provide conflicting evidence.
What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the small intestine in which any ingestion of gluten causes the immune system to destroy the inner lining of the small intestine. People with celiac disease cannot eat any foods containing gluten such as wheat, rye, oats and barley.
Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that is characterized by impairments in communication skills, language ability and social interaction. The disorder commonly involves symptoms such as limited speech, repetitive behaviors, mindblindness, motor skills impairments and sensory processing issues.
Some people with autism also have gastrointestinal issues and food intolerances. This has led researchers to examine possible connections between celiac disease and autism.
Food Intolerance and Autism
Since celiac disease and some cases of autism have difficulty digesting gluten, it is natural that studies have been conducted about potential connections between the two disorders. People with autism that experience gastrointestinal issues sometimes have other food allergies in attention to gluten intolerance. Both celiac disease and people with autism respond well to gluten-free diets.
A special gluten-free diet called gluten-free and casein-free diet (GFCF diet) is designed specifically for treating autism. A significant number of people report that autism symptoms and gastrointestinal issues improved after eating a GFCF diet.
Studies: Link Between Celiac Disease and Autism
Three recent studies have investigated possible connections between autism and celiac disease.
1997 University of Catania Study
A 1997 University of Catania study looked for a possible link between celiac disease and autism by conducting a controlled study on patients at the university’s Pediatric Clinic in Italy. They looked for signs of celiac disease in the autistic patients and for symptoms of autism in the patients with celiac disease.
One-hundred-and-twenty patients were among the group with celiac disease. Twenty controls were used. The researchers also evaluated 11 patients with autism and used a control group of 11 people of the same age and gender as the autistic patients.
Researchers did not find any evidence of celiac disease among the patients with autism. None of the patients with celiac disease had any symptoms of autism.
2007 American Academy of Neurology Study
A 2007 American Academy of Neurology and Tehran University study looked for evidence of a possible connection between autism and celiac disease.
A research team at Tehran University in Iran evaluated a group of 34 children with autism and 34 neurotypical children between the ages of four to 16. Each group had 16 girls and 18 boys. The researchers examined blood samples for the 34 autistic children to the blood samples of the 34 neurotypical children and looked for the two antibodies (anti-gliadin and anti-endomysial antibodies) usually present in cases of celiac disease.
When researchers found the antibodies present in four autistic children and two neurotypical children, they biopsied their small intestines and the results were negative for celiac disease for all of them.
The researchers found that there was no link between celiac disease and autism. There was no evidence to show that the food intolerances experienced by autistic children was connected to celiac disease. The condition of autism does not make a child more susceptible to celiac disease than a neurotypical child.
2009 National Institute of Mental Health Study
A 2009 National Institute of Mental Health and Aarhus University Research Foundation in Denmark found the first possible link between autism and celiac disease.
The research team studied the medical history of 689,196 Danish children and their immediate family to ascertain whether there was an autoimmune connection to autism or not. The researchers looked for any diagnosis of autism among families with pre-existing autoimmune disorders.
Out of the 689,197 children in the study, 3,325 had autism. Researchers found evidence that autoimmune disease in the mother, father or siblings created an increased risk for autism. Mothers with celiac disease were nearly three times more likely to have a child with autism than mothers without an autoimmune disease were. This is the first study that linked autism to an autoimmune disease, specifically celiac disease.
So is there a connection between celiac disease and autism? Studies results offer conflicting answers. The possibility of a connection raised by the 2009 National Institute of Mental Health needs to be studied further for a more definitive answer.