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The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) for Autism

Many autistic children suffer with gastrointestinal issues. Most of the time, these physical problems can be addressed through various autism diets and other biomedical therapies. All dietary treatments for autism attempt to remove chemicals, toxins, and potential neurotransmitters that might gain access to the brain. When it comes to gastrointestinal issues and how to treat them, there are two major groups of thought.

One group believes gluten and casein proteins sit at the center of neurological problems and brain degeneration. The other group believes that undigested carbohydrates create the issues. While all Specific Carbohydrate Diets (SCD) are gluten and casein free, the SCD diet is far more restrictive than just eliminating gluten and casein. Many autistic children have additional food sensitivities and have problems with intestinal flora. They need dietary interventions that go beyond a Gluten-Free Casein-Free (GFCF) diet. For that reason, the SCD diet is gaining in popularity for the treatment of autistic children.

What is the SCD Diet?

The SCD diet is a low carbohydrate, grain free, whole foods diet originally developed by Dr. Sydney Haas for adults who were enduring inflammatory bowel disease. Since many children with autism have similar concerns, parents who have placed their children on the diet have found significant improvement in both intestinal symptoms and behavior issues.

One of the main differences between the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and a GFCF plan is Dr. Haas’ stance on bacterial and yeast overgrowth. Overgrowth in the intestines precedes intestinal inflammation that leads to malabsorption of nutrients, particularly Vitamin B12. This inflammation seriously damages the intestinal walls resulting in further malnutrition. The overgrowth also interferes with appropriate function of the immune system.

It was Haas’ opinion that carbohydrates feed the intestinal microbes that play a role in inflammatory bowel disease. He believed that undigested carbohydrates create toxins and acids that can damage the intestines and impair the enzymes needed to digest sugar and starches. His diet works well for those with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and those resistant to a gluten free diet because it corrects the bacterial and yeast overgrowth, and re-balances the microbial flora of the intestines.

Many autistic children can’t implant normal flora, even with adequate supplementation. The bacteria and yeast overgrowth is too strong. The SCD diet combats these problems by allowing only easily digestible single-chain sugars such as glucose, fructose, and galactose. It eliminates multi-chain sugars like sucrose, lactose, and maltose. Starches are also not allowed. The object of the diet is to eliminate almost all forms of carbohydrates until the body heals.

The SCD diet moved into the autism arena with Elaine Gottschall, a biochemist and mother of an autistic daughter also diagnosed with colitis. Within two years after placing her daughter on the diet, her daughter was free of all symptoms. Many parents of autistic children read Gottschall’s book detailing her experience and quickly placed their own children on a similar diet. The diet worked just as well for them. Today, many biomedical specialists use this diet to treat autistic children, especially those who do not respond to a GFCF diet.

The fastest way to heal the intestines is to remove everything that might interfere with the healing process. Therefore, the SCD diet for autism allows no grains, no dairy products, no legumes, and no food additives or other contaminants that can lead to intestinal inflammation. It advocates fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, nuts and nut flours, banana flour, eggs, homemade goat’s milk yogurt (fermented for at least 24 hours to break down all casein and lactose), fresh and frozen meats, fish, and poultry. It also includes supplementation like digestive enzymes, probiotics, cod liver oil, Vitamin C, Melatonin, and other supplements.

Yeast Die-Off and Withdrawal Symptoms

Both a GFCF diet and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet produce withdrawal symptoms from potential opioid addictions of wheat and dairy. In addition, they also create a situation where yeast die-off can initially increase autism symptoms and behaviors. Cravings and pain can get so bad that it may be impossible for autistic children to cooperate with the diet. When parents remove casein, gluten, and other grains, it’s similar to removing a drug from an addict. Possible complications might make autistic children:

  • irritable, cranky, and combative
  • yell, scream, and cry more than usual
  • nauseated and sick to their stomach
  • light headed or dizzy
  • experience additional sensory dysfunctions
  • struggle with congestion, coughing, or runny nose
  • feel the need to do more stimming
  • more likely to throw tantrums or melt down

When it comes to handling food addictions and yeast die-off symptoms, parents of autistic children should switch them to a Specific Carbohydrate Diet slowly. Most medical practitioners recommend removing dairy first. Dairy allergens clear from the blood more quickly than wheat, gluten, and other carbohydrates do, and removing dairy often grants a substantial improvement in autism symptoms. Some parents have even discovered that dairy alone sat at the heart of their child’s problems.

Since a SCD diet does not allow soy or rice, many dairy substitutes are off limits. Since soy milk and rice milk are not allowed, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the entire SCD diet before beginning. That way parents don’t introduce a substitute or new food or recipe they might have to take away later on. In addition, adding these types of foods can prevent improvement and give parents a false idea about whether or not the diet is working.

Once the child becomes used to eating dairy free, parents can begin to pull grains and other off-limit recipes and foods. However, there’s nothing to prevent a parent from experimenting before that. If an autistic child is particular fond of chicken nuggets, for example, parents can practice cooking them at home using fresh chicken breast cut into chunks and dredging them in acceptable nut and/or banana flours to replace the wheat and dairy. Learning to cook grain free takes time. Removing and introducing new foods in stages will give the child’s body a chance to detox and adjust.

Which Autism Diet Will Work Best?

When it comes to autism treatments, it’s impossible to know beforehand which diet will actually work the best. What helps one child improve might not have any effect on another. Diets are generally a trial-and-error process. Typically, a biomedical physician will experiment with a gluten-free casein-free diet first, since it’s less restrictive and easier to adapt too. However, test results matter more than anything else does.

If an autistic child has bacterial and yeast overgrowth, their physician might decide to place them on either the SCD diet or an adapted gluten-free casein-free diet that eliminates everything that might feed the situation. If test results show the child is sensitive to other grains, then he or she may initially pull those grains as well. For those who don’t improve on a GFCF diet, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet is often tried next, with great success.

Finding and eliminating foods an autistic child is sensitive to can be difficult – but not impossible. For many years, the only way to discover food sensitivities that fell outside of a true allergy was an elimination diet. The SCD diet works in a similar fashion. While the initial restrictions are severe, as the intestines heal, parents can return healthy foods to the diet. While some individuals report the ability to eat wheat and dairy occasionally, others have not been able to. The result for each will be a personalized diet that allows the autistic child to become the best that he or she can be.

2 Responses to “The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) for Autism”

  1. Great post, very informative. Just one comment: letting yogurt ferment for 24 hours gets rid of (most of) the lactose, but none of the casein. That’s why the newer version of SCD, the GAPS (stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome)diet, does not include dairy yogurt until the guts have healed sufficiently. The GAPS book is a MUST-READ for every parent of a child on the autism spectrum. For every parent, period.


  2. I don’t suppose there is any estimated period that the “withdrawal symptoms” last for. My son started the SCD a month ago and he has degenerated hugely, to the point where I am considering stopping the diet. His communication which was slightly improving has almost ceased.

    Let me guess, every child “is different” and there is no way to tell!!!?


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