Supplements May Benefit Autistic Children

April 2013, updated February 2015

Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have limited diets. Parents have reported “picky eating”, food selectivity, and disruptive mealtime behaviors in 90% of children with ASD.  These behaviors can lead to limited food variety resulting in long-term nutritional challenges.[1] 

Vitamins and minerals are essential for numerous body functions.  Deficiencies may cause anemia (low iron), scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency), and rickets (calcium and/or Vitamin D deficiency) in adults and children.  Researchers believe that insufficient antioxidant intake may also play a role in ASD.  

Oxidative stress occurs as part of normal homeostasis – the process in which the body’s internal environment stabilizes. The body’s electrons detach from molecules and reattach almost instantaneously. A molecule with an unpaired electron must either acquire an additional electron from some other molecule or get rid of the odd one. As oxygen combines, recombines and electrons are exchanged, other unstable molecules are generated, containing unpaired electrons. These normal metabolic processes generate oxygen fragments or “free radicals”.

If these free radicals do not reattach to the molecule or to an antioxidant, they are unstable and volatile. Free radicals can damage DNA proteins, carbohydrates and lipids. Free radicals can spur the mutation of cells they encounter causing cancer, heart disease, and stroke.   Adequate intake of antioxidants, such as Vitamins A, C or E, can help prevent oxidative stress.  

While the cause for autism remains unknown, studies have shown that autistic children have low antioxidant blood levels. Researchers believe that free radicals could be causing further oxidative stress on brain cells.    

Treatments for Children with ASD

In June 2014, researchers at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute suggested that supplementation with Vitamin D and tryptophan is a “practical and affordable solution to help prevent autism and possibly ameliorate some symptoms of the disorder”.[2]  Other researchers using various vitamin/mineral supplement treatments have had promising results:

  • A 30-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 18 autistic children who took high-dose Vitamin C (110 mg/kg) witnessed a reduction in autism severity.[3]
  • An open-label clinical trial of 44 autistic children found that treatment with micronutrients were comparable or more effective than pharmaceuticals for reducing self-injurious behavior and for improvements in the Childhood Autism Rating, Childhood Psychiatric Rating, and Clinical Global Impressions scales.[4]
  • Eleven double-blind, placebo-controlled studies using very high doses of vitamin B6 and magnesium, resulted in positive behavioral improvements.[5] 
  • A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, 3-month study of 20 autistic children found a moderate-dose vitamin/mineral supplement was beneficial – improving sleep and gastrointestinal symptoms.[6]
  • A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled 3-month study of 53 children found that oral vitamin/mineral supplementation was beneficial to nutritional and metabolic status, and led to improvements in the Parental Global Impressions subsets of Hyperactivity, Tantrumming, Receptive Language, and Overall ratings .[7]   Researchers concluded that a vitamin/mineral supplement is a reasonable adjunct therapy to consider for most children and adults with autism.  

If you or someone you know has a child with ASD, families should work with a multi-disciplinary team (i.e., physician, pediatrician, nutritionist, nurse) to assess the adequacy of the child’s diet. Vitamin and mineral supplementation  may be warranted if the child’s diet is not balanced.

[1] Kral, TV, Eriksen WT, Souders MC and Pinto-Martin JA, “Eating Behaviors, Diet Quality, and Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Brief Review,” Journal of Pediatric Nursing, March 2013.

[2] Patrick, RP and Ames, BN, “Vitamin D hormone regulates serotonin synthesis. Part 1: relevance for autism”, The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, June 2014.

[3] Dolske MC, Spollen J, McKay S, Lancashire E, and Tolbert L, “A preliminary trial of ascorbic acid as supplemental therapy for autism”, Progress in Neuro-psychopharmacology Biological Psychiatry, September 1993.

[4] Mehl-Madronl, Leung B, Kennedy C, Paul S, and Kaplan BJ, “Micronutrients versus standard medication management in autism: a naturalistic case-control study”, Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, April 2010.

[5] Adams JB, George F, and Audhya T, “ Abnormally high plasma levels of vitamin B6 in children with autism not taking supplements compared to controls not taking supplements”, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Jan-Feb 2006.

[6] Adams JB and Holloway C, “Pilot study of a moderate dose multivitamin/mineral supplement for children with autistic spectrum disorder”, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, December 2004

[7] Adams JB, Audhya T, McDonough-Means S, Rubin, RA, Quig D, Geis E, Gehn E, Loresto M, Mitchell J, Atwood S, Barnhouse S and Lee W, “Effect of a vitamin/mineral supplement on children and adults with autism”, BMC Pediatrics 2011