Real Life

Fighting Autism - with food

By Andrew McNulty

This Waikato mum is happy to spend all her time in the kitchen if it means her daughters can have a better life. Sam Walker believes that if her two young daughters Alice and Annie didn't eat shepherd's pie for breakfast, take hundreds of dollars worth of vitamins and supplements every week, and turn down birthday cake at parties, they'd be very different little girls.

Sam (40) credits the extreme diet with improving her daughters' autism, even though it means she spends most of her time in the kitchen of their home on a lifestyle block near Hamilton, cooking up recipes from more than a century ago, and regulating their food. She credits the expensive vitamins, eating the biggest meal of the day for breakfast and steering clear of modern day foods as the keys to keeping autism at bay for Alice (7) and Annie (6).

Sam noticed signs of autism in Alice when her daughter was a toddler. "At two, Alice stopped talking and she lined toys up, but she didn't play. She was always climbing out windows. However, she did make some eye contact and could point at things," Sam recalls. She took Alice to specialists to try to get a diagnosis. one doctor thought the little girl wasn't autistic because she could make eye contact, but three others confirmed Sam's fears of autism and gave her little hope of recovery.

"I was told Alice would never leave home, probably wouldn't get married and could never drive a car," says Sam, a former maths teacher. "Her case was pretty severe - all she could do was scream." Sam also believes Alice's sister Annie has an anxiety disorder linked to autism and, after Alice's diagnosis, she began researching alternative treatments.

According to one theory, some people with autism may be allergic to foods that contain gluten and dairy products. So Sam took Alice to a nutritionist who said the little girl was highly intolerant to both gluten and dairy, and recommended they be removed from her diet. Now, Sam and her girls are following an alternative health regimen known as biomedical treatment. As well as taking nutritional supplements, everything they eat must be organic, as well as casein and gluten-free.

Sam believes mercury poisoning is one of the aggravating factors for autism and thinks both girls' symptoms may have been triggered in pregnancy by her own tooth fillings. "I only have two mercury fillings, but it's enough," she says. Within three days of starting the diet, Sam noticed changes. "Alice was calmer and happier so we also chose to remove all artificial flavours, colours and additives from her food," she says. The family also had Annie tested for food sensitivities and found out she was unable to tolerate soy and sesame. "She was fine generally, but she was so clingy. She screamed from the minute she was born. But, looking back, I actually think she was in pain."

As well as the diet, Sam also got an autism assistance dog to help Alice relate to the world. Lizzie, a golden retriever, has been of huge benefit already, says Sam. "She sleeps on Alice's bed, which gives her comfort, and she now sleeps all the way through the night. Having Lizzie nearby has given her confidence."

When the family first got Lizzie, they were instructed to keep the dog caged for the first four weeks and only let her out to be with Alice, who was also the only one allowed to feed her. "After two weeks, I let Lizzie out because I couldn't do it to her any longer, and all her training disappeared. So I put her back in and it worked," says Sam.

Sam can hardly believe the change in her children but admits it has been hard to adopt their new lifestyle. "It's a lot of hard work. You've got to be dedicated and you're always stuck in the kitchen cooking because you can't buy any packaged food. You can't just go, 'We'll get takeaways,' thinking it will be all right - it won't," says Sam.

Sadly, Sam and her husband split up two years ago - partly due to the pressure of looking after the children. "We lost sight of being together. I was so focused on the kids and he was trying to earn as much money as he could. It costs $1200 a week for us to eat like this and buy the children's vitamins," she says.

"We've gone without everything in order to do it. But when I look at my kids now - running around, attending mainstream schools, going to swimming and rugby, riding horses and taking piano lessons - I know it has definitely been worth it."

Sam has relaxed the food regime just once, when the girls were allowed to eat what other kids had at a birthday party. "They came home and screamed blue murder. Then they shouted at me, 'You made us sick! You let us have too many sweets and chocolate!'

"They know they get a sore tummy and a headache so they choose not to have those foods. They even tell me, 'We're so lucky that you cook all our food.'" Now the girls take their own cake to birthday celebrations and are happy to give the usual party food a miss. oealtimes are also reversed in the Walker household, with their largest meal at breakfast time. This is based on the theory that the digestive system works best in the morning.

"oy children go off to school with a tummy full of vegetables and protein. They have homemade fish fingers and chicken nuggets. They eat sauerkraut and shepherd's pie for breakfast," says Sam, who helps to run a website about biomedical treatment. "Even their chocolate cake is full of puréed veges and ground-up seeds. My house remains untidy. I can't work much. But I am the happiest I've been in seven years and so are my children."

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