Gluten, Grains, and Children with Developmental Issues


A guest post by Cara of Health, Home, and Happiness

Developmental disabilities are becoming more and more common- Autism is on the rise, learning disabilities are showing up in every classroom, attention and behavioral disorders (ADD, ADHD, ODD) are increasing, and sensory information isn’t being processed normally in many children (SPD). Having a special needs child can feel overwhelming. Mainstream doctors may prescribe therapies and run diagnostic tests, perhaps provide some prescription medication… but mainstream medicine doesn’t really have many answers for parents of children with developmental issues.

The good news is that there are some natural food-related things we can do to help our children! Just getting the gluten out of our special need child’s diet helps in some cases. Removing dairy (casein) as well is another helpful step. Both of those helped our child, but it really took removing all grains, starches (potatoes), and sugar from her diet to see steady improvement. This grain, sugar, starch free diet is designed to heal the gut, which in turn affects the whole body by having the gut-brain connection work properly (more about this in the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride)

Our story
My daughter is not officially diagnosed with autism (she’s diagnosed with developmental delays), but I still opted to try the so-called ‘autism’ diet and she went Gluten Free/Casein Free when she was 2-1/2. I saw immediate ‘miraculous’ improvement- my child was affectionate, had the ability to learn, and became a normal child for a few days.

After this initial major improvement, we still saw that she was doing better than before the diet (she could sleep, was able to learn) but seemed to be regressing fairly steadily. A couple months later we tried the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet, which is completely grain, starch, and sugar free. Since starting the GAPS diet, we have seen slow, but steady, improvement in her ability to learn, motor coordination, sensory issues, and behavior.

I think that going gluten free is a great step towards an ultimate goal of putting your special needs child (or yourself- GAPS can also help with depression, anxiety, attention deficits, allergies, and more!) on a grain and sugar free diet. Many children are so addicted to crackers and milk products, that I think it would be beneficial to eliminate gluten (and casein, but we’re mostly talking about gluten here) before taking the leap to go completely grain free, especially since gluten-containing grains seem to cause people more problems than other grains. There are gluten-free substitutes for wheat crackers and cookies, which will make the transition much less overwhelming to you and your special needs child.

This worked well for us- I’ll be honest, I thought the idea of going completely grain and sugar free was way too overwhelming to even consider. But after I got used to having her only eat GFCF foods, I not only was encouraged by the improvement that I saw in her, but I also realized that restricting her diet wasn’t as overwhelming as I thought it would be. She has been on the GAPS diet for nearly a year now (we started in November of 2009) and we happily continue on it, since I continue to see improvements.

I want to encourage other parents with children with special needs, even something as minor as a slight learning disability, to look into what dietary changes can do to help their child!

Please feel free to ask me any questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. Also remember that I’m just a mom, not a healthcare professional 🙂 I’d also like to note that though my daughter is clearly thriving on a grain free diet, the rest of us seem to be able to tolerate grains and wheat just fine. We do ‘go grain free’ as more of a cleanse a couple times a year for a month or so, though.

Cara lives in Montana with her husband and two young children, where they enjoy the outdoors, cooking, reading, and studying nutrition. She writes at Health, Home, and Happiness about traditional foods and healthy living.


See all my Gut and Psychology Syndrome posts here.
Listen to my interview about GAPS and my special needs child here.
Print a one-page overview of nutritional changes for special needs children. (PDF)


You can also check out all of the posts from the week we focused on wheat and gluten:

The Silent Cause to Poor Health – a fabulous, everyone should listen to podcast

The Transition to Gluten Free – a guest post by Kat from

Gluten Free Easily – a guest post from Shirley of GFE

Gluten Free Beauty – a guest post by Kristen of Gluten Free Beauty

Gluten, Grains, and Children with Developmental Issues – guest post by Cara or Health, Home, Happiness

and the 4 part Gluten Free Panel: part one, part two, part three, part four


  1. Shirley @ gfe

    This is an exceptional series that you are doing, Donielle. This post is equally as good. Cara cites great sources and offers smart guidance (and clearly speaks from experience). It’s really just huge how much these ingredients can negatively impact our children’s health (and our own). Removing them can give us “brand new” children over time.


  2. Cara

    Thanks for posting this Donielle, hopefully it helps even just one family!

  3. Neveen

    Cara and Donielle,

    Thanks for the informative post. I have a 10-month-old who was diagnosed with food intolerance when he was about 4 weeks old. I completely revamped my diet, took out the top 8 allergens plus other foods that seem to cause a reaction, like rice, avocados, chocolate, citrus and a smattering of other foods. I took out corn for good measure. I also started him on probiotics. His intolerance has gotten a lot better. I’m down to being dairy, soy, most nuts and rice-free. In his diet, we’ve introduced a few fruits, veggies and turkey. So far so good. We’ve also tested I believe his gut has healed considerably. I was just wondering if your daughter suffered from food intolerance when she was an infant.



    • Cara

      Hi Neveen, yes, she did have intolorences as an infant. In particular, broccoli and chocolate and milk. I bet I would have found more if I had done testing or an elimination diet, but at that time it didn’t even occur to me to avoid anything other than dairy. The chocolate and broccoli I just learned by chance, I didn’t have those often, and when I did she got gassy/spit up.

      • Neveen



        Thank you so much for answering. I was wondering if there are certain things I should look for that would point to my son benefiting from avoiding certain foods? Right now he’s a happy, active 10-month-old who seems to be growing on track. Some of the foods that used to upset him no longer bother him. I’m strictly speaking about things I eat in my diet. I’m waiting to introduce grains when he’s a bit older. From your experience, do you have any suggestions on things I can do to keep his gut healthy?

        Thank you so much.


  4. Stephanie M

    My 7 year old was just diagnosed with 11 food allergies. We are hoping to eliminate his physical symptoms as well as behavior/attention issues.

  5. Becky @ Our Peaceful Home

    My children don’t have any disabilities as far as I know but, do you know why gluten has such an effect on children? Is Gluten bad for us? Should we all be taking Gluten out of our diets? Or do we just eat it in too much excess? It seems like it causes such drastic inflammation and problems.

  6. Cara

    I don’t know for sure, but I’ll tell you my theory with gluten 🙂 In one long paragraph because my ‘enter’ key isn’t working today ~sorry 😉 I think that gluten is okay for us to eat, if it’s from whole grains that are properly prepared (soaked) and our digestive system is in good condition. A lot of the cultures Weston A Price studied in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration consumed grains and gluten. But in our modern culture, we have so many things that go against ‘good gut health’- antibiotics mess up the balance of gut flora, toxins like mercury mess up the gut flora, not eating enough food with beneficial bacteria (yogurt, cultured veggies, etc- ideally at every meal!) make it so our gut isn’t as healthy. With this unhealthy gut, either the gluten is feeding the bad bacteria that have populated it, and/or there are holes and too much is passing through. When the molecules pass through, they create all sorts of symptoms; in my child they seemed to act like an opiate (morphine) – she had a very high pain tolerance, was out of touch, had poor balance, etc. The ‘big offenders’ that pass through are usually gluten and casein, though there are others as well. But then there may also be populations who do not do well with grains at all, for instance the Eskimos that Dr Price studied consumed a diet of mostly animal products. So that’s just my theory.. I highly recommend the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr Natasha Campell-McBride, she goes into it in amazing detail and it makes so much sense! It’s not just for psychological issues, but also things like allergies or IBS.

  7. Tracee

    I am so glad you posted your story, more families need to know this. The SCD was a miracle for our son as well. I actually find it to be easier than gfcf too. I just hope more parents will hear about it and try it. I also have a 41 year old autistic brother, my parents are thrilled with my sons progress, and my brother and mother have lost their stutter on a gluten free diet, but I know their heart aches that they didn’t find out about it when my brother was a child. They did find out about the Feingold diet in the 1970’s and it stopped the tantrums.

    The more of us that get the word out, the more likely more people will find out about this.

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