Autism research: infertility treatment link, no benefit of special diet

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Autism researchers from around the world are meeting this week in Philadelphia at the annual conference of the International Society for Autism Research, and have presented studies investigating everything from the impact of an autistic child on the strength of his or her parents’ marriage, to the merits of popular gluten-free, casein-free diets for children with autism spectrum disorders and even a possible link between fertility treatments and increased risk for autism.

As Claudia Wallis reports for TIME, two studies presented this week at the autism research conference suggest a correlation between fertility drugs often used by couples struggling to conceive and a slightly elevated risk for autism in children. The researchers say that future research is necessary to confirm and expand on the initial findings and to rule out other potential confounding factors, but that the initial results imply a link between use of fertility drugs such as Clomid and a slightly higher risk for autism. Yet both the study authors and Wallis are careful to note the emphasis on slightly. As Wallis writes:

“Treatment-related risk appears to be small: among women whose average age was 35 when they had their first child, there was a 4% risk of having a child with autism for those who had taken fertility drugs, compared with 2% for those with no drug exposure. The increase in risk was even smaller among a younger subset of women.”

Meanwhile, in a small study analyzing the effect of gluten-free and casein-free diets on autism symptoms — the special diet has been widely embraced in the autism community and praised by controversial autism activist Jenny McCarthy — researchers from the University of Rochester suggest that it actually provides no substantial benefit. (Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat and barley; casein is a protein found in dairy products.)

For the study, researchers followed 14 children with autism between the ages of 2½ and 5 ½ for 18 months. Families were instructed to adhere to strict gluten-free and casein-free diets, and researchers took painstaking efforts to ensure that participants received sufficient vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients, and screened all children for Celiac’s disease, food allergies and iron deficiency. After four weeks on the strict diet, one of four foods was introduced — containing small amounts of either gluten, casein, both or neither (placebo). All of the new foods were given to the children for snack, and carefully designed to look and taste exactly the same.

The researchers found that, after children were given snacks containing gluten or casein, there was little noticeable change in behavior, and what incremental changes they did see were so small as to be attributable to coincidence. As Dr. Susan Hyman, lead author of the study and associate professor of Pediatrics at Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center, summarized in a statment on the findings:

“It would have been wonderful for children with autism and their families if we found that the GFCF diet could really help, but this small study didn’t show significant benefits.”

Researchers say that future investigation of the influence of diet on autism symptoms is essential, and say that, in spite of the lack of impact shown in this study, for autistic children who also have gastrointestinal disorders or certain food allergies, the diet could yield significant benefits.

Another study released this week at the conference on autism research found that, in spite of the popularly touted statistic that 80% of married couples who have an autistic child face divorce, the majority of children with autism are in families where both biological or adoptive parents are still together.