Why My Autistic Daughter and I Are on the GAPS Diet

Why My Autistic Daughter and I Are on the GAPS DietIn Spring 2014, shortly after my third child was born, I read a book which changed my life. Gut and Psychology Syndrome, written by doctor and mother Natasha Campbell McBride, details how central our gut bacteria is to our overall health, and outlines a gut healing diet. 

For more information on gut health check out this fascinating lecture by Professor Simon Carding at UEA’s Medical School.

The book touched on much of my own medical history, and the premise of gut and psychology syndrome (also known as GAPS) made complete sense to me. I knew instantly that I wanted to try the diet. 

Dr. Campbell McBride claims that you can reverse autism by following the GAPS diet, because an unhealthy gut can be a factor. I am hugely sceptical about this, and personally feel that it’s a fools errand to try and ‘cure’ autism. I do however, strongly believe, that eating the right foods can help alleviate symptoms that present challenging behaviour. Not just in an autistic child, but in any child.   

What is the GAPS Diet?

Eating the GAPS way means removing all processed food, starches, refined sugar, grains (not just gluten) and commercial dairy. There is plenty you can eat, provided that you make it yourself. 

The GAPS Diet has two parts. First comes a six stage introduction plan which sees you stripping away all food, then slowly, and systematically, reintroducing it. How long it takes to work through the six stages completely depends on individual symptoms. 

GAPS-bookAfter working through all six stages, you transition over to what is known as the Full GAPS Diet. This comprises of a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.  

My main motivation for trying GAPS in 2014 was food intolerance which wasn’t getting better through standard exclusion diets. I was also perpetually exhausted, but put that down to having three kids, one with a sleep problem.

When I went onto GAPS first time around, I had already been mostly refined sugar free for seven years, and Paleo for two. I say mostly, because none of us are saints are we? Trying to eat ‘perfectly’ 24/7/365 will probably do you more harm than good, as it would be so stressful.

Although GAPS was a massive challenge initially, I adapted quickly to my new way of life and was astounded by the results. After just a few weeks on GAPS, I was full of energy and felt properly clear headed for the first time in years. Gone was the brain fog, and wading through treacle. To top it off, my usually problematic skin was beautifully radiant. I looked and felt amazing! 

I documented the entire journey from the first day, to a one year update on this blog: Mummy Tries GAPS.

GAPS worked for me, but I didn’t stick to it for long enough. 

I tried to, of course I did, but life got in the way. 2015 was a ridiculously stressful year what with going back to work, and dealing with awful childcare challenges. Worse still, Polly was floundering at school, and absolutely miserable at home. This is where we faced up to the writing on the wall, and were led to her high functioning autism diagnosis

My redundancy was fortuitously timed, although career suicide in terms of going back to the City. At the end of the summer holidays I sent Polly into year two with a very heavy heart. By the October half term we had made the decision to home educate her.

This all took its toll on my well-being. Although I was still adhering mostly to a Full GAPS Diet, I was drinking far too much alcohol. This carried on into 2016, and I spent large chunks of it feeling depressed and incapable of meeting the varying needs of my children. Home education was a roller coaster I wasn’t mentally prepared for, and remains the steepest learning curve of my entire life.

The divide between my girls got bigger, to the point where they could hardly stand being in the same room together. Freddy’s sleep went from bad to horrendous. My husband and I were bickering far more than what I consider to be normal. The going got tough, so I took solace in my friends, which almost always involved excessive drinking. It was lots of fun at the time, but would come with a hefty price afterwards.

By the end of last year, I was at tipping point and knew that things needed to change. 

GAPS dietI was playing a dangerous game, which is ironic given the book I wrote a couple of years ago. Just goes to show that none of us are exempt from the dark clouds. What is more ironic, is that GAPS is wholeheartedly recommended for those who are suffering from depression. The last thing you want to hear when you’re feeling low is that your lifestyle is contributing to your mental health issues, but it’s often true. 

GAPS worked for me last time, and I am desperate to feel that good again. Yes it’s boring, in comparison to going out and getting smashed. Yes it’s hard work, in comparison to buying food ready to eat. There is no doubt that the first few weeks are super hard going, but starting anything is always hard. 

I wrote a post a few months back, about how sad Polly often is. How tough it is to watch her be so miserable. How helpless I’ve felt, when she’s taking her frustrations out on Clara and Freddy. It went way past standard sibling in-fighting long ago, and morphed into full-on bullying.

But I am done feeling helpless, because we always have options. We sometimes just need to open our eyes, take a big deep breath and put a little faith in ourselves and our abilities.

My view is this. If you and your children are healthy, don’t catch every bug going and are generally happy, then chances are all is hunky dory with your gut. You would never need to even entertain the idea of doing GAPS, or anything similar. Due to being in such optimum health, I’d hazard a guess that you’re also able to exercise the everything in moderation rule.

If you aren’t blessed with a spick and span immune system, because of whatever reason, you need to think outside the box a little.

Which is why myself and Polly are currently working our way through the GAPS Intro Diet.

GAPS diet - cashew and courgette pancakes
our breakfast this morning, delicious pancakes

I talked about GAPS a lot in the run up to new year, and Polly was adamant that she wouldn’t be joining me (even though I hoped she would). Then the day before I was due to begin, she told me she wanted to do it as well.

“I want to give it a go mama. Maybe it will stop me from being so mean to Clara and Freddy.”

I was seriously taken aback by her maturity, and have continued to be every single day. Polly is learning to listen to how food makes her feel, both physically and emotionally, which is the first step to self-regulation, and a lesson we could all use. She’s also eating tons of new food that she was previously refusing. 

Today was day ten, and the improvements in my girl so far have been immense. She is consistently calmer, kinder and happier than I’ve seen her since she was a toddler. We’ve had one full on difficult day, compared with one decent day out of ten, which had become our norm. I’m incredibly proud of how well she’s doing.

As for me, I’m getting back to myself again. I’m no longer engulfed with negative thoughts, and am not filled with doom about the future. I feel in control of what’s going on, and am not in a state of despair. No longer am I feeling the need to reach for the bottle in the evening, to ‘treat myself’ after yet another hard day. For the first time in over a year I feel like I can kick life’s butt, instead of it constantly kicking mine!

A few friends have voiced their concerns

They are worried that GAPS is too restrictive, and that it’s too much extra work for me. These comments come from a kind hearted place, but ultimately these people are looking at my situation through their own eyes. They know that GAPS would push them over the edge, and be a major cause of stress, so it’s not an option for their family.

I look at it completely differently though. I adore being in the kitchen, inventing recipes and making awesome food out of unlikely ingredients. It’s been my forte for a decade, and I don’t see it as a chore. It doesn’t cause me stress at all, but watching my kids tear each other apart, and all of us being miserable day in day out, most certainly does.

As for GAPS being too restrictive, no-one would bat an eyelid if we were following a strict exclusion diet because of allergies, or decided to become vegetarians would they? Cutting out the crap and eating natural food is never going to be a bad thing for any of us. 

We aren’t doing GAPS because we’re hoping it’ll ‘cure’ Polly’s autism. We’re doing it so she has a better chance to be a happy, healthy little girl. Surely that’s all any parent wants for their kids?

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