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Why Do Autistics Have Restricted Diets?

When your roof needs repairs, you’ve got to have both the roofing supplies (nails, tiles, ladders, etc.) and the actual labour and energy.  If you’re missing one of these, or the other, the roof isn’t going to get fixed.  It’s the same with when your body needs repairs.  If you’re missing the right nutrients, or the energy to actually use those nutrients, your body isn’t able to do the maintenance and repairs it is designed to do.

Getting enough food, never mind enough actual nutrients into someone on the autistic spectrum can be a real struggle.  It’s not enough to say “let this child do what’s best  for him or her” around eating, when malabsorption and malnourishment are the norm for autistics, instead of the exception to the rule.  It can be both frightening and frustrating when we autistics limit what we’ll eat in such drastic ways, sometimes only eating two or three different types of food.

While my online programming goes into what you can do to help us get the nutrients we so desperately need, it can really help to understand why we limit our diets in the first place.  There are three physiological reasons that we autistics can’t stand certain foods, avoid certain foods, and crave certain foods to the exclusion of all others.

So, why do autistics have such self-restricted diets?

The first reason is sensory overwhelm.  We autistics bring in a lot more information from our sensory system than most neuro-typical people do.  And the tongue has a lot more sensory nerves than most other parts of the body.  The tongue can bring in a great deal of information about texture, temperature, weight, and all kinds of other things about whatever it’s in contact with.  When the tongue gives us too much information all at once, this overwhelm can hurt more than the squeal of a train on tracks, right beside your ears.

For example, I can’t eat a peach with the skin on.  I must peel peaches before eating them, because the fur of the peach is so unpleasant and overwhelming on my tongue that I can’t taste the peach.  I am unable to enjoy what is lovely about peaches (smell, flavour, colour) because the negative signals are too loud.  So I’ve become good at peeling peaches. When we autistics won’t eat particular foods it’s sometimes because the texture, flavour, or something else is so unpleasant, we can’t appreciate what’s good in that food.

Sometimes if we prepare the food differently, it becomes enjoyable.  For example, some people have difficulty with the way mushrooms can squeak on the teeth when they’re raw and fresh.  Frying them, or turning them into a paté can take the squeak away, and allow the flavour, scent, etc. to be appreciated.

The second reason we autistics can self-limit our diets is because of a pain response.  Because we have the wrong creatures in the different areas of our digestive tract, we are getting some nasty waste products from them (as they use up the nutrients we need) which cause pain in the gut — among other things.  When we get worse pain in our digestive systems after eating a certain food, we can begin associating a particular food with pain.  Whether it’s true or not that a particular food isn’t getting broken down right and does cause pain, we start restricting the diet to try to avoid ever experiencing that level of pain again.  Over time, this can lead to very unusual and limited meal plans.

The third reason we might have a restricted diet is addictions to particular foods, believe it or not.  Most people don’t have addictions from normal food that they eat, but because we have the wrong creatures — or micro-organisms —  in our guts, foods are not breaking down completely.  Instead of getting the little components (vitamins, minerals, sugars, fats, amino acids) which we can actually use for body maintenance and repair, we end up with large chunks of undigested stuff, and no way to use them .

The undesirable gut creatures (or “wrong gut bugs” as Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe, a lead researcher on the human microbiome and its relationship with autism, calls them) will also often create perforations through the gut lining.  These undigested chunks of food can then migrate out of the gut, and straight into the bloodstream, where they’re treated as invaders by the immune system (hello, allergies and inflammation!).  And because we autistics don’t have a good blood-brain barrier (try saying THAT ten times, fast), these undigested chunks also migrate straight into the brain.

There’s an added layer of complication to this, though, and here’s only one example.  Foods like casein (which is the protein from dairy products) and gluten (which is the protein from very common grains such as wheat, rye, barley, triticale, spelt, and kamut) require very specialized and vulnerable “good gut bugs”, or probiotics, to be taken apart.  However, because we autistics have the wrong gut bugs, casein and gluten  are only partially broken apart.  Because the right creatures aren’t there to break these down, the opiate sequences that are built right into gluten and casein are released as-is, straight into the bloodstream. floating with your bloodstream throughout your body.

So, what exactly does opium do to humans?  From both first-hand experience, and from the research, let me tell you what happens. When you have opium floating through your bloodstream, you relax, and it becomes hard to focus and pay attention to things.  Everything is very peaceful and comfortable, because you also get wonderful pain relief, something tremendously valuable when you’re experiencing high levels of inflammation and pain.

Now unfortunately, there are some drawbacks.  We do get addicted to the opiate sequences coming from the casein and gluten, or the dairy products and grain products — which are almost impossible to avoid in processed foods.  If  for some reason the constant and regular supply of those foods fails, and we don’t eat any gluten or dairy, the cravings begin to kick in, and these cravings can be very powerful.

If we don’t satisfy those cravings, we begin to get withdrawal symptoms as our bodies physiologically react to the missing drug.  These withdrawal symptoms can be pretty awful.  Some of the other foods which are likely to cause these kinds of addictive responses are soft drinks, cane sugar, and food additives.

 

If you or someone you love could use more information on how to thrive with autism, please join us for one of our upcoming webinars;

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  • The autistic spectrum includes ADHD, Asperger's, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Kanner's, OCD, PDD-NOS, and Tourette's. Females in the spectrum are often misdiagnosed with Anxiety/ Panic Disorder, Bipolar, Eating Disorder, Fibromyalgia, and OCD.
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