Kids on the Spectrum: Diet and the Inner Hulk

We were visiting my younger brother Jess in South Carolina and trying to decide what to take to eat at my niece’s swim meet. Brother Jess called around about pizza  and I settled on taking a gluten-free wrap for myself. I decided Rafal could take some SerenAid and eat the pizza.

“I don’t want you to get sick, Rafal,” Jess commented.

“Oh, I won’t. Mom will. I just eat gluten-free to keep my inner Hulk inside,” Rafal explained.

I have celiac and Rafal is on the spectrum.  He normally eats gluten free and dairy free. Once or twice a year he eats something with gluten. Once or twice a month, he has some dairy. I am kind of starting in the middle of the story. Rafal and I know what gluten and dairy do to him. I may know a tad more of the scientific stuff, but he has a firm grasp on the main point. It makes him act crazy and out of control.

He didn’t arrive at this summation/revelation over night. In fact, there were battles, major ones over food. He wanted to eat gluten. He wanted to eat whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. Especially sugar (that part is still true). Now I know why. You know how an alcoholic craves a drink? Well, a person with a yeasty, leaky gut craves sugar and simple carbohydrates, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Why did I have Rafal go gluten free?

The more I read about kids on the spectrum, the more it became clear that there was a link to diet. I’m not saying that eating a certain diet has cured my child. It hasn’t. What it has done is make him feel more calm, more in control of his reactions. The green, angry Hulk doesn’t appear as much. The final decision to remove gluten and dairy from his diet came after reading Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder by Karyn Seroussi. There are some weighty scientific studies quoted in this book and it can be overwhelming to read at first. Basically it says that children on spectrum may have leaky gut syndrome. It is common in children on the spectrum. They have opioid excess.

“Reichelt suggested that the source of these “opioids” could be peptides that result from incomplete breakdwon of certain foods, in particular casein from milk and gluten from wheat and other cereal products. It has been demonstrated that is casein or gluten are mixed with stomach enzymes, opioid peptides (known as casomorphins and gluteomorphins) will result. Normally, these would be broken down further into individual amino acids, but if the appropriate enzymes are not present or otherwise inhibited, the peptides will persist and could get out of the gastrointestinal trace and into the blood.”- Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder by Karyn Seroussi

Milk and gluten acting as drugs, opiates because certain enzymes are missing. Hmmm. That was something to look into. If these opiates get to the brain, they have a widespread effect on the central nervous system similar to that of hallucinaogenic drugs. The result? Autisic behaviors or as Rafal calls it, the inner Hulk is released.

You can read more in Karen’s book:

autism book

How did I get my son to accept eating gluten free/dairy free?

There were two major habits that helped Rafal accept his change in diet. Number one, I bought him foods only he could eat. For example, he has his own box of cereal, his own granola bars, his own cookies, you get the idea. I had to sell the idea as something he was gaining, not something he was losing.

The second major habit that helped Rafal was my making treats at home, a lot. It is time consuming. It takes forethought. It’s worth it if he sticks to the diet. The best cookbook that is teen friendly, i.e. it has lots of sweet recipes that he loves is Cooking for Isaiah: Gluten-free and Dairy-Free Recipes for Easy, Delicious Meals. 

Cooking for Isiah

Some of his favorites are:

Gluten-Free Cheesecake-Stuffed Pumpkin Cupcakes:

pumpkin cheese cake

Click on image for recipe.

I modify this recipe and sometimes skip the cheesecake middle and add chocolate chips instead. As I am typing this post, Rafal just asked if he could have one of these (made a few days ago). Silvana has an extensive list of yummy recipes on her website. I think I gained a pound just searching her site for this favorite.

Another fall favorite is Penny’s apple-brown sugar coffee cake, it is only in the cookbook.  Also,

  • cinnamon-toasted belgian waffles
  • any of the doughnuts
  • Isaiah’s gingerbread pancakes with apple-cinnamon slaw

Dinner favorites:

  • sloppy joe-stuffed potato skins
  • pizza
  •  oven-fried frito chicken fingers with honey-mustard dip (I could drink this dip, so yummy)

So, in other words, find some recipes your child loves. There are plenty of guten-free products on the shelves of your local grocery to fill in the gaps (Aldi has a fantastic selection), but homemade takes the cake every time.

Does Rafal eat gluten-free and dairy-free one hundred percent of the time?

No. He doesn’t. Ninety-eight percent of the time, he does. That gives him about a few days of cheating and I don’t mean all out binge eating. I mean a piece of pizza on vacation, then a month later some milk in something. He is pretty religious about it himself now. He didn’t used to be. He used to sneak things all the time, I could tell. Now he is touch with how it makes him feel.

If I know he is going to eat gluten or dairy, he takes two SerenAid tablets.


” SerenAid® is specifically formulated to assist in breaking down the fullest range of plant and animal proteins, including casein (milk and dairy products), gluten (wheat, rye, oats, barley, and other grains), and soy proteins.”

SerenAid is a wonderful product, used in moderation. it won’t replace a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. It’s not an antidote for every day. It’s a safety net for when you fall off the tight-rope once in awhile.

To sum this post up in a few sentences:

  1. Gluten and dairy can behave as if they are hallucinaogenic drugs in a child who is on the spectrum.
  2. When you remove gluten and dairy, make sure your child feels as if you adding something. Find foods he loves. Take the time to bake.
  3. Try Serenaid for those times you just cannot avoid gluten and dairy.

*Disclaimer:  This post is not a paid endorsement of any of the above products. It is my experience and opinion only.  The Hulk was not harmed in any way, nor did we experiment with gluten or dairy in his actual diet. My son is not actually the Hulk.