Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterised by deficits in the ability to socialise, communicate and use imagination, and displays of stereotypical behaviour. It is widely accepted that ASD involves a disorder in brain development. However, the real causes of the neurodevelopmental disorders associated with ASD are not clear. In this respect, it has been found that a majority of children with ASD display gastrointestinal symptoms, and an increased intestinal permeability. Moreover, large differences in microbiotic composition between ASD patients and controls have been reported. Therefore, nutrition-related factors have been hypothesised to play a causal role in the aetiology of ASD and its symptoms. Through a review of the literature, it was found that abnormalities in carbohydrate digestion and absorption could explain some of the gastrointestinal problems observed in a subset of ASD patients, although their role in the neurological and behavioural problems remains uncertain. In addition, the relationship between an improved gut health and a reduction of symptoms in some patients was evaluated. Recent trials involving gluten-free diets, casein-free diets, and pre- and probiotic, and multivitamin supplementation show contradictive but promising results. It can be concluded that nutrition and other environmental influences might trigger an unstable base of genetic predisposition, which may lead to the development of autism, at least in a subset of ASD patients. Clear directions for further research to improve diagnosis and treatment for the different subsets of the disorder are provided.
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Diagnosis; Gluten-free diets; Gut–brain axis; Treatment.