One of my real pleasures as a writer is working with parents of children who have autism. Many of them know more about nutrition for autism than doctors, psychologists, educators, and, yes, experts in nutritional supplements. I receive many penetrating, sincere questions about all kinds of treatments for autism, including fish oil.
Sometimes fish oil helps children
And I will start this article by saying that sometimes fish oil helps children and adults who autistic spectrum disorders, and sometimes it does not, and the difference depends on the whole nutritional program.
Fish Oil and Vitamin E for a Syndrome of Allergies, Apraxia, and Autism
Physicians at the Children's Hospital & Research Center in Oakland, California report that combination of fish oil and vitamin E relieves symptoms in autistic children who have a combination of:
- Allergies, especially food allergies, and/or gluten sensitivity,
- Fat malabsorption, causing smelly, floating stools and interfering with the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K,
- Autism, and
- Apraxia of speech.
Apraxia of speech is an inability to move the mouth and tongue in the sequence needed for fluent speech. Autistic people who have mild apraxia of speech may be able to speak with lots of "uh's" while more severe cases of apraxia of speech may make verbal communication impossible.(read more about fish oil for apraxia of speech )
When researchers gave fish oil and vitamin E supplements to autistic children with these symptoms, they noted general improvement in speech, eye contact, coordination, and pain responses. While these symptoms are also associated with an L-carnitine deficiency, the researchers did not test also giving L-carnitine supplements. Neither did they give fat-soluble vitamins (although cod liver oil is an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins). Further research is ongoing to determine the most effective dosage of fish oil and vitamin E for this combination of symptoms.
Does it work? At least one mother of an autistic child reported "Fish oil unlocked my autistic son" in an interview with the Daily Mail in the UK. Martha Hutchings reported that after taking fish oil, her son went on to speak in two-word sentences and then seven-word sentences and then learned to read.
Whether your child would experience the same dramatic benefits, I certainly can't say. I just recommend that fish oil is extremely inexpensive and safe, and worth a try.
Fish Oil for Preventing the Cardiovascular Side Effects of Psychoactive Drugs
Some of the medications used to treat autism can cause irregularity of heartbeat that can cause sudden death, even in children and teens. In Brazil, it is considered good practice to give fish oil to children and adults with autism who are treated with Geodox (ziprasidone), Seroquel (quetiapine), or Zyprexa (olanzapine).
How Much Fish Oil is Needed to Treat Autism?
The honest answer to this question is that no one knows. In one study of adults who had severe Asperger's or autism, a daily dosage of 930 mg of omega-3 essential fatty acids along with multivitamins did not change symptoms while taking the supplement, but symptoms improved after the supplements were stopped. A study at the National Research Center in Egypt found that some children who had mild to moderate autism were helped by taking just 300 mg of essential fatty acid supplements a day, but some did not respond at all.
Most families find that there are only so many supplements a day that they will struggle to get their children to take. What I would suggest is that if you are going to use fish oil at all, choose a brand that contains a relatively high amount of omega-3 essential fatty acids per capsule, such as Xtend-Life, Omega-Brite, or Nordic Naturals, and then commit to giving at least one capsule a day for at least 60 days. That is the only way to know if fish oil is really helping. Digestive upset is unlikely if you use these brands, because fish oil capsules that contain the highest levels of useful omega-3 essential fatty acids simply do not have enough room left over for the "marine liquids" that can cause stomach upset.
Does it make a difference whether the brand is higher in DHA or EPA? I can't give you an evidence-based answer, but it seems to me that brands that contain more EPA than DHA, such as Omega-Brite, are more likely to be helpful, since they are more helpful in other neurological conditions.
Can I guarantee that your child will get better if you give fish oil? No, I can't. What I can say is that in some cases, fish oil seems to be associated with considerably improvement. In others, it is not. It is a safe supplement, however, and you can buy from vendors who offer refunds if the product does not work.