Autism and Diet – A Parent’s Story

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Posted on 1 April, 2014 by Michelle Rogan

This morning I spent time speaking with Rachelle Cochrane, mother of a child with autism.

Rachelle is passionate about the effects of poor gut health on autism and credits a change in diet to her autistic child’s recovery from violent and distressing autism spectrum behaviours, a severe case of sensory processing disorder, an auditory processing disorder and a significant speech delay. She observed that gluten and dairy (or more specifically the protein casein found in cow’s milk dairy) and cane sugar were the main culprits adversely affecting her son’s health, wellbeing, learning and behaviour.

Rachelle recalls how at 2 ½ her son was non-verbal, which they were a little concerned about but thought would improve over time. However his speech did not improve and things got worse as his behaviour and health in general began to deteriorate and started to negatively impact his quality of life. He refused to use speech to communicate or follow instructions and he would tantrum at the slightest provocation. The tantrums would sometimes last up to 45 minutes until he would froth at the mouth and nose, and at one point he was having at least one every couple of hours. The most upsetting thing for Rachelle was that he could not be comforted with a hug or reassuring words. If she came within a couple of metres of him, the tantrum would escalate and he would harm either himself or damage things around him. He refused to get dressed or undressed, brush his teeth, move from one room in the house to the next, let alone get in the car to take his brothers to school. He became a very picky eater and started to stay awake for upwards of 15 hours in a day with no nap,  played mostly on his own and had huge problems with sharing. He couldn’t tell you his name or the names of any of his family members and spent the majority of the day in his own world. When Rachelle would come home from work he wouldn’t even lift his head to acknowledge she had walked into the room.

Rachelle’s then Speech Pathologist spoke to her of research findings and of other parents that had success in treating their autistic children with dietary changes. Rachelle began earnestly researching the link between diet and autism. At the same time their 6 year old was diagnosed with coeliac disease so the whole family was starting to eat gluten free. After just a week of not eating gluten the changes in their 2 year old were so obvious that his grandparents were shocked at the change and commented on how he was like a different child.

The likes of Dr Anke Koelman, The Gluten Summit, various websites (whose links are below) and the book ‘The Kid Friendly ADHD & Autism Cookbook” by Pamela J. Compart and Ana Laake confirmed her suspicions about gluten and dairy and helped her to understand what they did to the body and how it manifested the behaviours she had been seeing.

 “For most people, the breakdown of dietary protein into smaller and smaller peptides (amino acid chains) and finally into individual amino acids is a process that is smoothly completed as food travels through the digestive system. However, for an individual with autism, it has been found that partially broken-down components of the original proteins are able to pass from the intestine into the bloodstream. This is caused by an intestinal lining defect and/or incomplete digestion.

In the case of two of the diet’s most common proteins, gluten (from wheat, barley, oats, and rye) and casein (from milk), some of the components that are released into the bloodstream have opioid (morphine-like) properties. Gliadorphin-7 and other similar polypeptides are formed in the breakdown of gluten. Bovine ß-casomorphin-7 and other similar polypeptides are formed in the breakdown of casein. Most recently, deltorphin and dermorphin have been targeted for their potential activity as well. All of these polypeptides contain regions very similar in structure to morphine. These proteins are transported to the brain where they bind to receptors causing an effect that our research indicates is manifested in the symptoms of autism.”

(Excerpt from

After a week off gluten her son’s tantrums had settled down. After 2-3 weeks off gluten AND dairy he had stopped producing mucus from his mouth and nose during tantrums and 6 months after removing gluten, dairy and sugar and incorporating activated vitamins and minerals from a Naturopath, coconut oils, herbs and other healing foods Rachelle explains her son’s transformation was nothing short of miraculous. She vividly remembers the day he walked up behind her one day and said, “I love you” for the first time. Now 18 months later he calls all his family members by name, attends mainstream Kindy, plays with other children and makes up creative play scenarios, makes eye contact regularly, is happy to go the supermarket and in fact copes with ‘popping in’ unexpectedly to a few different shops if need be, engages in conversation and will listen and follow verbal instructions. Even his sensory issues have reduced to the point where he will now wear a hat at kindy, brush his teeth, get dressed and undressed without any tantrums, wash his hands after going to the toilet and even helps with the vacuuming.

Some family members initially expressed concern over such radical dietary changes and many queried if his body’s ability to develop and stay healthy after removing so many things from his diet. But for Rachelle’s son it was the total opposite. He is now physically fit and strong and his OT is amazed at his strength, balance and agility.

One of the important things she learnt was not to deprive him of too many of his favourite foods but to replace the food her son loved with a replacement food free of dairy and gluten. For example he loved arrowroot biscuits as a treat, so she found some that were gluten and dairy free and offered those instead.

Rachelle is currently setting up her own website to help other families learn about the positive effects of changing to a Gluten, Casein and sugar free diet. You can also contact her at

If you are interested in these diet changes please follow the links to learn more.Also we advise that you please speak to your GP, Paediatrician and consult a Biomedical practitioner before making any dietary changes. For further reading suggested websites are:     – Dr Anke Koelman (Adelaide based)



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