Converting Kids to Paleo and Autism Spectrum, whereby we talk out of our…

For the record, in searching on this topic I found this awesome set of links.  There’s also this fantastic success story from Rachel at PaleoFreedom. I encourage you to read them for more fact-based advice.  As you may or may not know we are simply parents who blog from our bed on a laptop missing half the keys – not medical professionals.

I’d love your advice and other anecdotes on converting my kids to Paleo.  I have one child in particular that would benefit tremendously.

Evan is 8 yrs old and on the autistic spectrum.  He was diagnosed at 19 months and has come a REALLY long way.  He was once on 3 different medications at the same time: Risperdal, Prozac, and Vyvanse.  These medications did not help much at all.  I finally decided to wean him off slowly and instead started giving him supplements such as Omega 3 and Vitamin D.  I got a great response.  It was so much better in fact, he went medication free for about a year before his behaviour issues started becoming an issue again at school.  He has always had severe behaviour issues at home, but at school he had been doing well. However, he started threatening teachers and students and I had to do something. I am pretty sure that what he was saying was just coming from movie lines from that movie “G Force” since that was what he was obsessed with at the time, but still I had to do something.  So I had him put only back on Vyvanse and that was positive for a few months.  Now he is back to being angry, paranoid, and weepy at home.  He still keeps it together pretty well at home.  During Hurricane Irene a few weeks ago, he broke my window by headbutting it because he was angry about being bored while the power was off.  He picks at his skin and is covered in sores from that.  I know you’re thinking to take him to a doc, but I’ve been down that route so many times and its never done anything really positive.

So here I am, my fiance and I have been Paleo for over a yr now with great results.  Evan is also a bit chunky since he is such a carb fiend.  He eats the same things OVER AND OVER.  Here is a list of what he eats:  McDonald’s cheeseburger kids meals, pizza, mac and cheese, the crust off fried chicken, beef soft tacos (only cheese no lettuce), peanut butter sandwiches, and of course junk foods. I think its rather obvious a good bit of his problem is what he is eating.

I recently started adding K2 and Magnesium to his supplement regimen and that seems to have helped.  I am sneaking coconut oil into his peanut butter sandwiches as well.

So what advice can you give here?  I know you experienced some behavioural issues with your son as well.  Was it difficult to get him eating differently? I think it would be pretty easy to get my younger son to do it.  My 13 yr old daughter is already eating better.

Thanks so much for your input.




My sympathies go out to you for the situation you are going through. Before I dispense any advice at all, let me first say that neither Cole’s nor Finn’s problems were on the level of what you are going through, so I feel slightly ill equipped to answer your question fully. We were essentially able to bribe/convince Cole to give us two weeks of only feeding him Paleo foods. He agreed to it (at the promise of something your son may really want, like a weekend getaway with just mom) and ate pretty cleanly for two weeks and immediately started feeling better. He started getting praised in school, rather than constantly in “trouble” and that was really the catalyst for us to be able to explain that the food was helping his body be in better control.

The first time he returned to the usual way of eating (we allow our kids to make their own choices after the promised period, but we won’t buy anything non-Paleo for him), he felt immediately sick. Not only did his tummy get sick, but he told us he didn’t feel well and we could tell he just wanted to laze around rather than the exuberance we’d seen since going Paleo. We reminded him that was from eating unhealthy foods. He then firmly established that if he doesn’t want to be sick, he ought to eat what we recommend.

Even before this time, we simply weren’t keeping many bad foods in the house and had committed to eating out of the house very infrequently.  This event in particular was spawned by visiting family. The great and surprising thing for us was that the kids are much more capable of making the food-sick connection that we expected. Finn, too, has become aware of things that make his tummy sick and tries really hard to avoid them.  So if you can come up with gluten-free alternatives of his favorites, get him feeling better and then work on taking it to the next level it might work.

That was the real trick for us, transition foods. Once the kids were on board, we helped them by letting them occasionally use  foods that weren’t necessarily Paleo, but were better than the original. We got gluten free (corn) chicken nuggets for the freezer, quinoa in place of rice and tapioca rice bread for sandwiches.  We didn’t do a 1:1 replacement of these foods, that won’t help to bring down the insulin resistance and blood sugar issues most carb addicts struggle with.  Instead we made the “special treat foods” available when we felt the kids needed or wanted something to feel a sense of “normal.”  We weaned the kids off as they began to feel more comfortable with eating our way. We realized after a few months that if we sent Cole to school with the rice bread, the guts of the sandwich got eaten, but the rice bread came back. One day we just stopped buying it and no one blinked an eye.

Now I don’t have an autistic child, but I would say that very few children will let themselves starve to death when food is available. If you take what he already likes and will eat and expand from it, you may be able to expand what he’ll eat. For example, if he already likes beef tacos, make them at home without the tortilla and see if he’ll accept it. There are recipes for coconut flour tortillas, or you can even buy the sprouted corn tortillas in the freezer section of Whole Foods as a transition food.  If he’ll eat chicken skin, try making oven roasted, non battered chicken with a crispy skin and see if it will work for him. Try meat crust pizza (or start with gluten-free crust and just skip the cheese) to see if it gets devoured. We had a lot of success doing this with Finn once we determined he’ll eat anything with guacamole on it. It may end up being a fight sometimes, but you are trying to help him.

At our house the rule is that no one gets to substitute. If you don’t like the dinner on the table, then you may eat at the next mealtime. It’ll be a hard rule to begin if it’s not how your house operates right now, but it’s one that’s a value not just for Paleo but for the family in general.  We try not to make this a punishment, but we are firm. We make it clear that “Daddy spent a lot of time making this food and it hurts his feelings when you’re rude and won’t even try it.  This is the choice today, if you won’t eat it that’s OK but there’s not another choice.”  It’s worked to get them to try many new things that quickly became favorites.  Keeping in mind of course, that you should attempt to give them food you think they’ll like or at least have 1 guarantee available – like guacamole or ketchup that they can dip stuff in if they’re not a particular fan of what you’re serving.

For reference, we addressed some of this on the second page of the Paleo Parents Pamphlet. We addressed what our kids actually eat both in a post here and in the video blog here.  Some surprises from our kids: they’ve learned to love guacamole, sausage, sauerkraut, kale, and spinach. Hope this is helpful to you and to other parents who may be asking themselves the same questions.  It’s not an easy task but we guarantee you a worthwhile one.  Sounds like you know what needs to be done; we look forward to hearing a success story on the other side!

You Might Also Like

  • I don’t have an autistic child either but I did have one with severe behavioral and social issues bordering on Aspergers. I think this is good advice. Depending on his tolerance I would transition very slowly to keep the behaviors to a minimum as they will derail the whole process if they get too bad. Have Paleo as a goal but think of it in terms of many baby steps. Reduce the amount of tortilla with his meal very slowly for example. Substitute some items for healthier options. If he can tolerate going faster, I would try it occasionally and see how he reacts. Also remember as his body detoxes through better nutrition, the behaviors can get worse for a while another reason to go very slow. Good luck – you are doing a good thing! 🙂

  • Rachel

    Hi! My name is Rachel, and I am the mother of an “in remission” autistic child linked to in the success story at the beginning of the article. I do know a bit about what you are going through. My daughter was diagnosed at the same age, but we were lucky to get her 100% paleo at 26 months old, which I am sure made it much easier. For one, she didn’t have years of bad eating habits to change, and also didn’t have years of gut damage to repair. Here is my advice for your son.
    I would take him to the doc and ask that his stool be tested for what gut flora is in there and also for candida overgrowth. Based on his usual diet as you described, it is not just too many carbs that are the problem here, but all gut damaging foods that would encourage overgrowth of yeast and bad gut flora. All the foods you listed are also highly pro-inflammatory, which is at the heart of ASD behavioral problems. Get his gut/brain inflammation under control, and his behavior will change so drastically you will be floored. Even if you are supplementing good things, he may not be properly absorbing any of it because of the gut disbiosis. GLUTEN HAS TO BE BANNED 100% OF THE TIME, PERIOD. It only takes one exposure every 2 weeks or so to keep the vicious cycle going. I know this is very hard, but if you could experience life on the other side of 30 days of 100% grain, legume, and dairy free, you would never turn back. I thank God for it every day of our lives! Ad a high quality, multi-species probiotic. I use a refrigerated powder one for kids (Garden of Life RAW Probiotic) that we add to some herbal tea or highly diluted juice for Scarlet and it has made a big difference! Keep up the Omega 3, Vit D, and K2. I dont care if all he eats for a while is bacon, sausage, and Kosher beef hot dogs. He really will start to eat other things after a while, even if you have to put it in front of him 50 times before he will try it, keep trying! Try sweet potato fries baked in olive or coconut oil, low- sugar fruits like berries and melons, even bananas. Make a home made bone broth from a rotisserie chicken and add chicken and veggies to it for a super gut healing delicious chicken soup. I am going to post all our favorite super kid friendly recipes on my blog tonight because so many ppl ask me this and I have some really good ones for very picky junk food eaters. Email me via my blog if you have any questions or need help with this. Good luck! It can get so much better you won’t believe me until you try!

    • Rachel, thanks so much for your awesome response! I didn’t realize you had a blog, I just added it as a link – thank you!

    • Vicki Dixon

      Thank you Rachel!  I am the Vicki that sent this in and I will definitely read up on your blog.

  • Necia

      My son has (had?) PDD and after a LONG road you would never know he ever had any issues due to nutrition.  Supplements are down to fish oil, Vit D, B12 ,and a multi.  We went gluten/casein free originally.  We stacked his crackers on the counter and said we’ve just realized how bad these are for you and you’ll feel better if you stop eating them.  When these are gone we won’t be buying any more.  He was 5 and very good about it.  We also said he had to eat what we did from now on at dinner (he’d never eaten meat).  It took a long time but now he tries things without batting an eye!
      He moved on to an attachment to corn and found out the hard way he was sensitive- making him behave autistically again.  The reaction went straight to his brain!  We found out about paleo a few months ago and we can all tell the difference in how we feel.  The kids will tell me their bellies hurt if I give them rice pasta or GF bread as a treat.  When we’re really craving carbs we’ll have it, bloat, feel terrible, and move on paleo style!  
    Good Luck!  You’re not alone…

    • That’s great to hear your children had the same experience as mine, in terms of self-motivation and accommodation.  I agree that in general gluten-free casein-free is going to offer a big bang for your buck while you transition to full Paleo.  Thanks for your feedback, gives me goosebumps!

  • After reading Rachel’s post back in late June or early July, we transitioned our ASD son to full Paleo.  Transition might be putting it too nicely; one day we just went full Paleo! If it helps, we’re chronicling what we’re doing and the progress we’re seeing at Paleoboycade.blogspot.com .

    Cade is five years old. He’s old enough to notice that we’ve changed things but not quite big enough that he thinks he can out last the will of mom and dad. We just told him that the foods he used to eat would hurt his tummy. We came up with this saying because 1. There is a high correlation between autism and eating/digestive problems and 2.The foods we are eliminating are the most likely causes of a leaky gut and auto-immune issues and, to a five year old, the gut and the tummy
    are one in the same. Cade understands this so well now that, when we made spaghetti out of spaghetti squash the other day, he told us he couldn’t eat it because spaghetti hurts his tummy!

    Before the diet, Cade had not eaten meat in over a year. We tried, but he would hold it It in his mouth for hours. He’d wake up from a nap after lunch and still have chewed chicken in his mouth! Gross! Now, he eats mostly meat, some fruit and a few veggies. We mix it up with eggs, ham, ground beef, organic hot dogs, pork, and chicken.

    One thing Rachel suggested was to cook the meat in a slow cooker so it’s very tender. This helped Caedmon start eating chicken. Our other secret weapon was ketchup. It’s more expensive, organic ketchup, but he loves the stuff and, when kept in moderation, helps him eat the stuff we want him to.
    I can’t say the change in him is off-the-charts drastic, but we’ve definitely seen improvements. He was already very high functioning, and is in standard kindergarten. He’s taken out a few times a week for speech therapy. When we went and met his kindergarten teacher, my wife explained his diet to her. She said that, if my wife hadn’t told her, she wouldn’t have known he was autistic. Sometimes, I think we can not notice the small, gradual changes that occur over time and therefore miss the larger, overall change.

    • What awesome news, I too was emotionally struck by her post.  The cooking foods until soft or very crispy is totally a technique we employ too, I think it’s just hard for their baby teeth to get through that big muscle meat and some kids struggle more than others.

      Thanks Andrew, and great news – thanks for sharing!

  • Vicki, have you heard of GAPS? It’s a diet developed by a neurologist for treating autism and many, many other inflammatory disorders. It’s very paleo-friendly. The book explains a lot, and discusses ways of transitioning really tough cases to the diet. There’s a “full” diet, ie all the foods one could theoretically eat on
    the diet, and there’s an intro diet. Lots of people start at full GAPS,
    get a handle on it, and then do intro. A GAPS intro “challenge” is starting Oct 1 at Heath, Home & Happiness (blog) which includes menu plans and other resources, or you can check out the always-level-headed GAPS Guide website.

    One video in particular that I recall shows a boy who can’t make eye contact or respond to questions, claps his wrists spasmically, and hoots, and a year? less? on GAPS, he’s talking calmly to the camera and you’d hardly guess he’s on the spectrum. (See SAHMville on blogspot)

    Paleo might be enough to keep a child’s symptoms under control, but the GAPS goal is to “heal and seal” the gut, paving the way for good uptake of that great nutrition. I agree with Rachel – absorption is your first priority!

    Good luck. This is not a struggle that I would wish on anyone, and I hope you find success for your family.

    • Lauren, I think the trouble with GAPS is that it’s a LOT of change to introduce. I agree that the gut healing is very valuable but if you can get in bone broth and coconut oil to Paleo foods you should see tremendous change to enable taking the next step.


  • Pingback: Holzpellets gute Preise()

  • Jenn

    I use to take care of my cousin who was has severe autism. I remember cooking hamburgers to be very thin and I would buy thin buns and smash them down trying to make them look like a Jack in the Box burger. I even wrapped them in the paper I saved and put them in a Jack in the Box bag I saved since it was all about how it looked.

    Maybe you can buy or make a gluten free bun and some quality grass fed beef and put it inside a happy box. You could also try making rutabega or turnip fries since those would be white and look less suspicious and you could put those inside the happy meal box too.

    Good luck! I know this is VERY hard with kids with autism. I had some pretty bad fits to deal with over food with cousin and I cannot even imagine having to deal with it 24/7. Hang in there! It will be worth it!

  • Anna

    I just found your site as a link from another Paleo site. My son does not have Autism or behavioral issues, however, we found out at 10 months old he has severe food intolerances to Corn, Wheat, Rice, and Soy.  Even for a stay at home Mom this would be difficult, but my son has gone to daycare full time since he was 9 months old.  I’ve never wanted my son to feel different as even kids in preschool can be very mean to kids who are different in any way, and at that age food is a big deal.  Last year we were introduced to Paleo/Primal lifestyle.  My husband and I immediatly implimented it, to a great success for all of us, and thanks to all the great blogs like this one, I can subsitute almost anything that his school serves with a better option, mostly grain free as they use a lot of bread, crackers, etc. To the parents starting out there is hope, my son is almost 5 and he knows corn, wheat, and rice especially make him feel bad.  If someone tries to give him food that he doesn’t recognize he will tell them I can’t have it, it will make me sick.  Most of the time he is more diligent than I am, as I have a really bad sugar tooth I constanly fight against, he will often tell me Mom don’t eat that it will make you feel bad!  I feel for any parent with kids who have health issues, especially Autism, and change is never easy, but with a little patience, and some extra work in the kitchen I think your kids will actually enjoy a Paleo lifestyle, I know mine does. I’ve even had a few request form his pre-school to share his food because his looks and smells better than what the cook makes!  Good luck to you all, and thank you for sites like this that make our lives a little easier with receipes that we can implement into our kids lives.

    • Anna, what a wonderful compliment – thank you! It’s hearing positive stories like this that keep us going and putting work into making this the best endeavor we can 🙂

  • Mimid006

    Hello,  I have a 5 yr old grandson who is autistic but on the low end (thank goodness!).  He eats only, chicken nuggets, fries, pizza after the cheese is pulled off, grilled cheese, and loves milk,  you get the picture.  He will sit for HOURS and not eat a bite if you try to give him something he thinks he doesn’t like.  We just don’t know what to do.  I know others say ‘if he gets hungry, he will eat’, but those people do not understand Autism.  There are plenty of studies that show, they certainly MAY NOT and will starve.  My daughter and I started the paleo a few weeks ago and have been doing pretty well.  I am not sure how to get my grandson to eat this way.  We are very worried about him, he has been throwing up in his mouth or has blood in his stools.   He has been to the doctor and specialist and they really are not much help.  Any suggestions?

    • We recommend a gradual approach, generally moving in a positive direction over time. For example, if your child will eat chicken nuggets, try getting him to eat gluten-free chicken nuggets. Then, try to get him to eat grain-free chicken nuggets, then just chicken. If he eats pizza, then try a gluten-free pizza. We try not to make better the enemy of perfect here; after all, we are far from perfect and don’t claim to be anywhere close to it. I would say that the symptoms you describe are classic symptoms of a leaky gut and the farther away you move from the gluten and other gut irritants, the better off you, he, and his mother will be. But it will take time and conditioning, and that’s okay. Hope that helps!

    • CharissaRichards

      I have a daughter who is pretty severe on the spectrum, she is almost 8.  So I do understand the aspects of autism and how difficult and stubborn they can be when it comes to food.  However, the diet your grandson is currently eating (I hope it has improved since this post!) is making him even more ill.  My daughter would cry, tantrum, and have massive meltdowns when initially removing the beloved junk food.  You just have to dig in your heels and make it clear that whatever you are feeding is what they are going to get period.  It is heartbreaking in the beginning and you just want to give in and get them a happy meal, but in the long run it’s just prolonging the situation.  My daughter now eats many meats she wouldn’t before and tons of fruits and vegetables.  I do make her occasional treats made with almond meal and sweetened with raw honey (there are tons of amazing recipes out there).  As for the chicken nuggets, I cut breast into strips, bread with almond meal, and fry in a small amount of coconut oil.  The turn around has not been an amazing miracle, but I know I am doing right by her and she definitely feels better!  Meltdowns have lessened and speech has increased drastically.  I implore you and your daughter to give cleaning up your grandsons diet a shot.  It makes all the difference in the world!  Best of luck!

  • Carriedadey

    My son had SPD/ASD issues, and we do GAPS/Paleo for him and also have to stick to very low carb (such as Healing Naturally by Bee’s candida diet or 21 day sugar detox type of diet.)   We started GFCFSF, with some mixed results, and then someone told me about GAPS and it made a huge difference.  I think GAPS is a great resource to understand how all of these neurological issues are related to digestive health, and she does offer ideas to help very autistic kids transition onto the diet, such as beginning with the full GAPS list for a bit (I would skip the allowed dairy on that if it were me) and then after the child is used to that going back to the Intro, for even deeper healing.  Honestly, I don’t see how her full diet is much different than most Paleo sites, as it eliminates grains, legumes, most dairy (she allows ghee, butter, and raw milk fermented dairy like kefir, and some raw milk cheeses on full GAPS), starches, sugars, and food additives.  She emphasizes pastured meats and eggs, healthy fats, lots of veggies and the addition of fermented foods.  (I love Bubbe’s sauerkraut, Bubbe’s pickle, SunJay’s KimChee, and CocoKefir products for those, and may begin raw milk kefir as my son’s digestive system heals more as well).  For someone who is looking for all the pieces of the puzzle to snap into place, GAPS is the single best book I have ever read for digestive healing.  I love Paleo sites for recipe ideas and support, but there are great GAPS sites too, such as Home, Health, Happiness, (blogger Cara) and MommyPotamus (blogger Heather).  I also love Organic3 GutPro probiotic.  I took it with me to the Biomedical MD we are seeing for my son, and he said it was the best one he has ever seen including the one he usually recommends.  It had all the strains he wanted, and none of the ones he is wary of, and no fillers at all.  NONE.  I have never seen that before.  It is expensive, but a bottle will last several months, and I believe you pay for what you get.  Some of the addictive food behaviors kids have are from imbalanced microflora, so getting a probiotic into a kid may be the very first step to recovery and getting them to make better food choices.  Good Luck.  It is a tough road, but you can do it.    

  • Jordan5

    I’m curious about milk. Our family is pretty much 100% paleo. However, I’m concerned about calcium intake and if it’s enough? We don’t include dairy due to my children’s allergies and had been on either almond or coconut milk beverage . Recently, I found out about carrageenan and that it is contained in most nut milks and So Delicious coconut beverage. So we decided to eliminate those beverages and am wondering if I should have my kids take a calcium supplement or multivitamin? However, doesn’t that contradict what paleo is about? I guess my question is does our culture drink so much milk because of the calcium and fat content for our children? If so, is kale and collard greens and other foods enough? If not, any suggestions? Thanks!

    • Here’s Diane from Balanced Bites on Calcium: http://balancedbites.com/2011/10/faqs-paleo-diet-calcium.html

      My take is that there are similar species out there that seem to have no calcium trouble yet drink no milk. So why do we? As long as you all eat a lot of the darkest green veggies that you find, at least a good cup a day, you’ll be fine. Broccoli, Spinach, etc. all work. If you’re still concerned, you can get egg shell powder and add that to your meals for extra.

    • By the way, I’m looking at Stacy’s blood test screening from this past summer. She’s well within the acceptable range on no dairy at all. Good luck!