Autism from a Functional Perspective

Updated: May 19



Photo by Hilary Walsh Photo


By Dr. Erin Stefanacci DC CFMP


Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) have been continually on the rise. The CDC reports in the year 2000 autism and related disorders affected 1 in 150 children, now in the year 2020 they affect 1 in 54 children!

If you are unfamiliar with autism, it is a developmental disorder that impacts the nervous system and impairs several basic daily functions. The severity of symptoms varies greatly between individuals. The DSM-5 mentions a couple of key diagnostic criteria for autism including but not limited to; repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities and deficits in social interaction and communication. Once diagnosed, early behavioral therapy can help, but from a functional health perspective, there is so much more that can be done!


Connection Between Gut & Brain


The gut-brain connection has been a hot topic for a number of years. It is widely researched and has provided invaluable insights into numerous health-related deficits, including AD/ASDs.


One study reports that up to 91.4% of individuals with ASDs also report experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating.


Other research shows an association between gut microbiota dysbiosis and neurodevelopmental deficits related to autism and is implicated as a potential contributor to the associated behavioral challenges.


Despite having hundreds of peer-reviewed research articles linking gut health to AD/ASDs, the etiology and pathophysiology of these disorders are surely multifactorial. Over the years, autism has been linked with many things such as genetics, environmental toxin load, pathogens such as rubella, detoxification impairments, food intolerances, inflammation and nutritional deficiencies.

What You Can Do Now

Find Food Intolerances

In general, an elimination diet is a great thing that can be done to find food intolerances that are potentially contributing to symptoms. In autistic children, a gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet has been shown to improve core behaviors such as communication, social functioning, attention, concentration and hyperactivity. Pay Attention to Digestion and Heal the Gut

As mentioned above, children with autism tend to have digestive complications. Fermented foods or a good probiotic may be beneficial here. Some individuals may also do well with digestive enzymes. If you try these things without having much success, it may be a good idea to dig a little deeper by utilizing a comprehensive stool test. A stool test can look at specifics of gut health including infection, inflammation, dysbiosis and maldigestion. Avoid Refined and Processed Foods

This seems simple, but additives that can cause behavioral problems are hidden in many products. Artificial dyes have been shown to have neurotoxic effects. Some families report that by avoiding added food dyes they have had success with decreased behavioral issues with their children. An article written by Board-Certified Neurologist, Dr. David Perlmutter, correlates autism prevalence with glyphosate usage on corn and soy crops, also known as GMO crops. The bottom line is to incorporate as many organic, whole foods as possible. Tend To Nutritional Deficiencies

With potential food intolerances, a gut that may not be functioning optimally and a diet high in processed foods it is likely that there may be some nutritional deficiencies that need to be addressed. A good multivitamin may help until other things mentioned are addressed. If you feel that you are doing “everything right” it may be a good idea to look for genetic variances such as the MTHFR gene. Individuals with the MTHFR gene do not methylate well. Methylation is a process that protects DNA, aids in detoxification and helps to keep the brain and gut healthy. Also, individuals with this gene need specific types of B12. If supplementing with the wrong type, it can cause behavioral problems in some children. Incorporate Chiropractic Care

Many individuals think of chiropractic adjustments solely as a remedy for neck and back pain, but chiropractic offers many other health benefits. Adjustments improve the communication between the brain and body. Scientists note that autistic children have interference between the brain and body, disrupting communication between the two. Chiropractic care can help improve the quality of life for these individuals. Adjustments also increase parasympathetic nervous system response (think rest and digest) and can help children cope with the stress of being unable to communicate effectively with others. Consider Functional Medicine

Autism is a sensitive topic and there are many different pieces to the autism puzzle. The ones mentioned here are some, but certainly not all, of those pieces. By working with a functional medicine practitioner, underlying imbalances can be addressed so that the body can heal and function optimally. Supporting your child’s overall health and development certainly can’t be a bad thing!

Whether you have exhausted all other medical interventions or simply are looking for an option that will complement conventional medicine, Carolina Holistic Health may be what you are looking for. Book a complimentary 15-minute health strategy session here. **Reminder: This is an educational article that does not constitute medical advice. It is always recommended to speak with your healthcare provider before implementing any of the above recommendations, especially if you have pre-existing conditions or are taking medications.