By Elizabeth Strickland, Vol. 18, No. 6.
Food allergies are becoming a serious concern for American children. An estimated 6 to 8 percent of children under the age of three suffer from food allergies, and the numbers continue to rise. There’s also a growing body of evidence showing an increased incidence of food allergies among children with autism and related disorders such as ADHD compared to the general population of children. Autistic children may be more vulnerable to food allergies because of abnormalities in their digestive and/or immune systems. Research also supports a link between food allergies and behavioral problems, though the medical community has been hesitant to acknowledge this. Understanding how food allergies may be affecting your child and eliminating problematic foods from his diet is a critical component of his comprehensive treatment plan.
The Food Allergy–Behavior Connection.
Food allergies don’t cause children to have autism or other related disorders, but they do affect children with these conditions more than typically developing children. This is because children with autism, Asperger’s, PDD, ADHD, and ADD share a common problem—they tend to have some degree of sensory integration dysfunction. Children with sensory integration dysfunction have trouble responding appropriately to sensory information from their environment. They are more sensitive, become easily overwhelmed, and may overreact (or underreact) to auditory, visual, and tactile stimulation. If your child already has sensory issues, allergy symptoms like itchy skin, hives, eczema, runny nose, sneezing, and itchy, tearing eyes will stress his sensory system further, making it even more difficult for him to function normally. The combination of food allergies and sensory issues can hinder your child’s ability to sit still, concentrate, maintain focus, process information, learn, control his impulses and behavior, and interact with his teachers and therapists. Relieving your child of food allergy symptoms will lessen the sensory burden he has to deal with, which will improve his behavior.
Autistic children are unique because they’re often unable to verbally express the physical discomfort and pain they feel from food allergy symptoms. If your child is non-verbal or has an expressive language delay, he can’t tell you if he feels nausea, abdominal pain, chest pain from reflux, or headaches. Instead, your child has to “communicate” physical pain through his behavior, such as head banging, tantrums, irritability, and food refusal. This is crucial for you to know because these behaviors are very often mistaken for typical autistic behavioral problems instead of behaviors caused by undiagnosed food allergies.
What is a Food Allergy?
Although many people use the terms allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance interchangeably, they really describe three different food-related conditions.
An allergy is defined as an adverse immune response to a food protein. A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly identifies a specific protein found in food as a harmful substance and defends against it. Food allergies are classified according to how the immune system responds and are split into two categories: IgE mediated and non-IgE mediated.…
For more information and author bio see the full article in Vol. 18, No. 6, November/December 2009 (available in print and digital format) of Well Being Journal.