Treatment Guide

Can celiac disease be mistaken as autism? A boy whose “autism” was cured.

A five year old Canadian boy, diagnosed with severe autism, was cured when the true cause of his mental disorder was found to be celiac disease and he was treated with a gluten-free diet and nutritional supplements.

Photo originally posted to Flickr as "Jack"

Photo originally posted to Flickr as “Jack”

His autism was cured because he was never really autistic in the first place. He had celiac disease, an immune response to wheat, barley, rye and oats that damages the intestines leading to malabsorption of nutrients.

Gluten-restricted diets have become increasingly popular among parents seeking treatment for children diagnosed with autism.(1)

What if certain children who are diagnosed with autism actually have celiac disease?

Neurological disorders stemming from celiac disease have been widely documented in medical literature. Some of these conditions include poor balance, tremors, migraines, chronic fatigue, schizophrenia, epilepsy, apathy, depression, insomnia, behavioral disorders, inability to concentrate and anxiety.(2)

Many of these issues are due to nutritional deficiencies resulting from the intestinal damage that celiac disease causes. If caused by celiac disease, they improve once gluten is removed from the diet and the intestine heals and functions properly.

Genuis and Bouchard, researchers at the University of Alberta, recently published the case of the 5-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with severe autism at a specialty clinic for autistic spectrum disorders. After an initial investigation suggested underlying celiac disease and varied nutrient deficiencies, a gluten-free diet was instituted.(1) His diet and supplements were adjusted to secure nutritional sufficiency.

The patient’s gastrointestinal symptoms rapidly resolved, and signs and symptoms suggestive of autism progressively abated.(1)

This case is an example of a common malabsorption syndrome (celiac disease) associated with central nervous system dysfunction and suggests that in some cases, nutritional deficiency may be a cause of developmental delay.

Genuis and Bouchard recommended that all children with neurodevelopmental problems be assessed for nutritional deficiency and malabsorption syndromes.(1)

This case study suggests that at least some of the reported response to gluten-free diets in children with autism may be related to correction of nutritional deficiency resulting from undiagnosed gluten sensitivity and consequent malabsorption.(1)

Most doctors expect to see symptoms like chronic diarrhea, abdominal bloating and pain before considering celiac disease. But not all children with celiac disease and neurological disorders have gastrointestinal problems.

The following videos vividly illustrate how celiac disease can create neurological issues a doctor may never consider to be associated with celiac disease if the child does not have gastrointestinal issues the doctor expected to find. [UNFORTUNATELY, DISCOVERY MYSTERY DIAGNOSIS REMOVED THE VIDEOS FROM YOUTUBE AND WOULD NOT RESPOND TO OUR REQUESTS FOR THE MATERIAL…]

Eamon Murphy started exhibiting mental aberrations and problems eating at three months of age. By the time he was three, his parents were frantically trying to understand what had caused his developmental delay in walking and talking, and now his trances, seizure-like episodes and regression. After a determined effort by his mother and a series of extraordinarily lucky events, he was finally diagnosed with celiac disease…and fully recovered.(3)

Intestinal damage from celiac disease leads to malabsorption of nutrients, whether or not gastrointestinal symptoms are apparent. If the missing nutrients are needed by the brain for proper function, then neurological issues will appear.

As the doctors at the University of Alberta suggest, screening people with neurological disorders, including autism, for nutrient deficiencies and celiac disease may find the underlying cause of the disorders. If celiac disease and nutrient deficiencies are the causes, then removing gluten from the diet and correcting the nutrient deficiencies can lead to healing and resolution of symptoms.

[Editor’s Note: Article originally published August 6, 2009.]

1. Genuis SJ, Bouchard TP. Celiac Disease Presenting as Autism. J Child Neurol. 2009 Jun 29. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 19564647.
2. Libonati, Cleo. Recognizing Celiac Disease. Gluten Free Works Publishing, Ft. Washington, PA. 2007.
3. Can Celiac Disease Make Your Child Mentally Ill? Watch These Recovery Videos!
Author Information: John Libonati, Philadelphia, PA
President-elect, Celiac Sprue Association (CSA).
Editor & Publisher, Recognizing Celiac Disease.
John can be reached at

About John Libonati

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Author Information: John Libonati, SW Florida Publisher, & The Gluten Free Works Treatment Guide.

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