Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder for which there is no known cure. However, as researchers search for a solution, they have been studying various treatments and interventions that may help manage the symptoms.

One such intervention that has drawn attention is the use of omega-3 fatty acids. In today’s blog, we’ll explore the potential benefits and limitations of omega-3 supplementation as it relates to children with autism.

 

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder and is not classified as an illness or a disease. Autism has many forms and faces, with various subtypes, impacting each individual differently. Rather than viewed as a monolithic disorder, autism is now more commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), in part given the range of severity and variety of individual reactions to the condition.

According to the not-profit Autism Speaks, ASD is “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.”

ASD is generally a lifelong disorder, although life expectancy may be shortened depending on the level of severity, functional impairment, and associated comorbidities. The disorder begins in early childhood and experts seem to agree that the condition is present at birth, whether it is properly identified or not.

BLOG: More Good News for Omega-3s & Autism: The MARBLES Study

There is no one known single cause of ASD, but it is widely believed that genetics and prenatal environmental factors have an impact on the risk of developing ASD.

Some potential contributing risk factors for ASD include:

  • Genetics
  • Advanced parental age at time of conception
  • Maternal obesity, diabetes, or immune system disorders
  • Extreme prematurity or very low birth weight
  • Prenatal exposure to air pollution or certain pesticides

Here are some additional facts from the National Autism Association:

  • Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder over the last 20 years, with most recent (2023) statistics showing prevalence in one of 36 children in the U.S., up from one in 44 (2021). The rate of autism has grown steadily over the last 20 years.
  • Boys are four times more likely as girls to have autism.
  • Approximately 40% of children with autism do not speak while about 25-30% of children ages 12-18 months lose the words later in childhood.
  • Autoimmune disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive/compulsive disorder, allergies, asthma, epilepsy, and gastrointestinal/digestive disorders are just some of the comorbid conditions associated with autism, and many are chronic or long-term conditions.

Here are some signs of autism in children:

In young children:

  • Not responding to their name
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Not returning a smile with a smile
  • Repetitive movements, such as rocking their body, flapping their hands, flicking their fingers

In older children:

  • Not seeming to understand what others are thinking or feeling
  • Getting upset if their preferred strict daily routine changes
  • Finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on their own
  • Finding it difficult to verbally express how they feel

Early diagnosis and intervention is key to helping children manage their ASD as they develop.

 

What are the Current Treatments/Therapies for Autism

At this time, there is no one standard treatment for ASD. However, there are several ways to manage or minimize your child’s ASD symptoms to maximize their abilities. Individuals with ASD may experience different comorbidities requiring different treatments and the functional level identified for the individual will also make a difference in terms of the support needed.

You may also find there will be trial and error involved in finding the right therapies for your child; therefore, it is helpful to involve healthcare practitioners early on, those who are familiar with ASD as well as those familiar with the potentially accompanying overlapping disorders, such as epilepsy or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depending on what your child is experiencing.

BLOG: The Omega-3 Index and Pediatric Depression

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the NIH suggests the following interventions and therapies, including:

  • Behavioral management therapy relies on reinforcing desired behaviors and reducing unwanted behaviors, with ways for caregivers to respond before, during, after and between episodes of problematic behaviors.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy emphasizes the interaction between thoughts, feelings and behaviors and how to help those with autism better cope with social situations.
  • Speech-Language therapy may help with verbal skills and non-verbal communications skills such as spatial relationships and eye contact.
  • Nutrition therapy may be suggested for children with ASD who have a complicated relationship with food. In order to help ensure these children are getting the nutrition they need, working with a registered dietitian may be warranted.
  • Medication treatment will likely focus on specific symptoms connected to ASD or comorbid conditions, often in combination with behavioral therapies. FDA has approved some medications for treating some symptoms of autism or other conditions. Some doctors may recommend other drugs off-label, which is not endorsed by the NICHD. Read more here.

This article explains that FDA has only approved two medications—Abilify and Risperdal—for children with autism and both are antipsychotic medications that may help with irritability and aggression. For a child with autism and an additional medical diagnosis of ADHD, Adderall could help with those symptoms. However, the article also discusses whether children with autism are being overmedicated, with a quick fix, rather than making use of other therapies which could help.

 

What are Omega-3s and How Might They Help? 

Omega-3 fatty acids are one nutritional intervention with less potential side effects than medication, but perhaps with less targeted impact. While the research for omega-3s and ASD is inconclusive, there are some promising studies—promising enough given the nutrient’s safety and overall beneficial profile that could lead parents of children with ASD to consider it among their arsenal of actions—in consultation with healthcare practitioners such as doctors, registered dietitians, pharmacists.

Omega-3 fatty acids are in the category of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) that experts consider, along with monosaturated fats, to be the healthiest kind of fat, and one which should be incorporated into the diet. Omega-3s are found in a variety of foods, most richly in fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), but also in some nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flaxseed, and plant oils such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil and canola oil). Children’s supplements are also available.

Omega-3s are among the most extensively researched nutrients with potential benefits discovered in the areas of heart health, brain health (cognitive function, memory and mood), eye health, sports performance and more.

The need for omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for kids actually starts in utero. Omega-3, specifically DHA, may help prevent premature births (extreme premature birth being a risk factor for autism), morbidity and long-term disability. Some research points to a 10-fold increased risk of early preterm births for pregnant women with low DHA levels.

BLOG: Update on Omega-3 and Preterm Birth Recommendations

Omega-3 EPA and DHA are crucial for a baby from the time of conception to age two, as this is considered a key time for brain growth and development of the eyes, and immune and nervous systems.

The MARBLES study is one that may be of interest. Two hundred and fifty-eight mother-child pairs from a prospective cohort were included in the study. All mothers already had a child with ASD and were planning a pregnancy or were pregnant with another child.

In short, the study confirmed associations from previous studies between higher maternal EPA and DHA plasma concentrations in late pregnancy and reduced risk for non-typical development (non-TD) of the child-to-be. In the MARBLES study, specifically, higher blood levels of EPA and DHA were associated with a reduced risk for non-TD in children born to mothers who already had an autistic child.

While the study results may not translate to the general population of women, researchers commented that this study markedly advances understanding of whether and when maternal polyunsaturated fatty acid intake influences risk for autism spectrum disorder and sets the stage for prevention at the behavioral and educational level. Read more from our previous blog.

VIDEO: The Relationship Between Mom’s DHA Level and Baby’s Brain Development Up to Age 2

 

What Else Does the Research Say About Omega-3s and Kids?

Actually, we’ve also previously blogged about the importance of omega-3 for kids. For instance, there are studies that show promise for childhood asthma and allergies, based on the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s. We cited three studies in this area, all with some positive results.

For example, one of the studies discovered that children with higher levels of omega-3s were less likely to have asthma or a recurrent wheeze at 3 years old. And in the same study, blood levels of omega-3s were associated with lower allergy blood markers. The researchers advised that more studies for longer periods as well as randomized controlled trials should further evaluate the potential of omega-3s as a safe and inexpensive potential treatment for childhood asthma and allergies.

We mention these studies because asthma and allergies are two of the conditions that often occur in children with ASD.

In another previous blog, we shared positive news on the importance of maternal diet during pregnancy on the baby-to-be, specifically with regard to omega-3 fatty acids and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), another comorbid condition for those with ASD.

What’s more, this article, finds that omega-3s may help with brain processes in people with ADHD. Further, the article reminds us that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for healthy growth and development in children and are considered generally safe.

The article pointed to a scientific review, which suggests that supplementing with omega-3 PUFAs “has a small beneficial effect on behavior in children with ADHD” with the authors calling for further research and also noting that PUFAs should not replace treatment approaches for managing ADHD.

This double-blind, randomized clinical trial study was conducted on 56 children with autism over an 8-week period. The treatment group (28 children) were supplemented with 1,000 mg of omega-3 daily, while the control group (26 children) received a placebo. The findings indicated that omega-3 supplementation improved autism characteristics, including stereotyped behaviors and social communication.

BLOG: How Omega-3 DHA Affects the Intelligence of Preterm Babies

Further studies, said the authors, are needed to confirm these findings and to determine the underlying mechanisms of the results.

This post further makes the case for omega-3 fatty acids in helping reduce the symptoms of ASD, reminding us that children with autism frequently have inflammation and omega-3s lower inflammation impacting neurotransmitters, mood, sleep, attention, and aggression.

Another post reviewed some of the literature on omega-3 fatty acids on ASD, noting that some research supports omega-3 supplements in decreasing hyperactivity (to a moderate degree) in children with ADHD. Further, the piece mentions that omega-3 fatty acids also have a role in some chemical pathways in suppressing inflammation.

Because inflammation has been documented in the gastrointestinal tract in children with ASD, the author ponders whether omega-3 supplements might decrease the effects of inflammatory pathways in the gut and therefore reduce irritability and pain-related behavior.

The post goes on to say that despite some small studies of omega-3 fatty acid supplements in children with ASD that found tendencies toward decreases in hyperactivity, those outcomes were not significant. In other words, the research related to omega-3 fatty acids and children with ASD is mixed.

Still, the author says this: “there appears to be no harm in giving omega-3 fatty acids, and larger randomized controlled trials should be done for a definitive answer.”

 

New Systematic Review Finds Promise for ASD Symptoms with a Two-Supplement Combo

A relatively recent (August 2023) systematic review sought to examine the relationship between ASD and omega-3 supplementation, vitamin D supplementation and a combination of the two supplements. After a search of over 1100 papers published on the topic between 2002-2022, the authors identified criteria, which led to 20 randomized, double blind, open clinical trial studies being included in the review.

The studies came from 12 countries and the study sample sizes ranged from 13—109 people (with a combined total of 991 study subjects), ages 2–40 years old, all with ASD. The study duration ranged from 6 weeks to 12 months, with omega-3 interventions lasting from 6 weeks to 6 months and vitamin interventions from 3 to 6 months. The trials that combined omega-3 and vitamin D supplementation lasted 12 months.

The findings were analyzed for the intervention effects focusing on the core symptoms of ASD, including social functioning, behavioral functioning, speech function and biomarker changes.

BLOG: Choline and DHA Uptake During Pregnancy

The results found that vitamin D had a positive effect on ASD-related behavioral functioning. Further, when vitamin D was supplemented with omega-3, the combination had a good effect on social and behavioral outcomes in ASD patients. On the other hand, the authors advised that the results of omega-3 supplementation on its own was too weak to conclude that core ASD symptoms were alleviated.

Bottom Line: At OmegaQuant, we’re in favor of on-going, well-designed research on omega-3s and ASD. But in the meantime, we know that omega-3s can have meaningful impacts on health in general and urge parents of children with ASD to talk with their health team about omega-3s.

If there are added benefits in reducing ASD symptoms or other related-condition symptoms, that’s like the cherry on the top. Check with your pharmacist about potential interactions between the medications your child is taking and omega-3s. And ask about potential allergies (i.e., to seafood).

In addition to your health team, remember you’re not alone. In the U.S., there are federal and local organizations that provide support to the ASD community, including raising funds, supporting scientific research, raising awareness about autism through education and advocacy, and providing those with autism, their families and friends with information, tangible tools, networking and other ways to cope with ASD. Here’s a link for more information.

VIDEO: Why is Omega-3 Important for a Baby’s Brain Development?

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This test is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent or mitigate any disease. This site does not offer medical advice, and nothing contained herein is intended to establish a doctor/patient relationship. OmegaQuant, LLC is regulated under the Clinical Laboratory improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) and is qualified to perform high complexity clinical testing. The performance characteristics of this test were determined by OmegaQuant, LLC. It has not been cleared or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Sign up for our Newsletter and save 10%*

Join our mailing list to get the latest news and updates from OmegaQuant.

You have successfully subscribed! Use code NEWSLETTER10 to receive 10% off your next purchase*.