By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 30 March 2012)
Iron Supplements as a Treatment for Autism Symptoms: Research Findings
Iron deficiency can adversely impact cognition, slow development of infants, impair concentration, diminish motor coordination, negatively affect mood, reduce social and emotional functioning, and trigger sleep problems. Studies indicate a higher-than-average prevalence of iron deficiency in children with autism (Latif et al., 2002; Reynolds et al., 2011).
Children with autistic spectrum disorders often have difficulty sleeping, and Dosman et al. (2007) found that iron supplementation improved sleep among autistic children. However, Ryaskin (2004) warns that it’s difficult to draw conclusions based on iron supplement research, because those who are deficient in iron are often deficient in other minerals as well, so it may be these other deficiencies that are causing problems. Also, because children with autism are often picky eaters, selecting from a relatively small group of foods due to taste, smell, and texture sensitivities, their low iron status may arise as a result of diet.
At this time, there hasn’t been enough research conducted to determine whether or not iron supplementation would be beneficial for all autistic children, though it would likely help those who are iron-deficient. Having a doctor check for iron deficiency is a good idea.
Iron Supplement Safety
Although iron supplements may be beneficial for some children with autism, high doses of iron can be very dangerous. WebMD warns: “High doses of iron are UNSAFE, especially for children. Iron is the most common cause of poisoning deaths in children. Doses as low as 60 mg/kg can be fatal. Iron poisoning can cause many serious problems including stomach and intestinal distress, liver failure, dangerously low blood pressure, and death.” If giving iron supplements, it is very important to consult a doctor in order to ensure safe and appropriate dosing.
Natural Sources of Iron
It’s always best to get nutrients from natural sources whenever possible, because vitamins and minerals work synergistically with other nutrients in foods. Natural sources of iron include:
Some of the best sources of iron are pork, chicken, clams, oysters, fortified cereals, soybeans/tofu, white beans, lentils, chickpeas, and molasses. Eating an orange or drinking orange juice with iron-rich foods is beneficial because consuming vitamin C increases iron absorption.
Other Autism Supplements
For more on the effectiveness of other supplements for treating autistic spectrum disorders, see the main Autism Supplements page. For a full list of articles on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, visit the main Autistic Spectrum Disorders page.
Always consult a qualified medical practitioner before taking supplements or giving them to your child. Many supplements are toxic at certain doses and may interact with some medications or create problems for people with certain medical conditions.
This article is not intended as a substitute for medical consultation or care. Health concerns should be referred to a doctor.
- Alberta Health Services, HEALTHLink Alberta. (February 2007). “Iron for Your Health.” HealthLinkAlberta.ca.
- Dosman, C.F.; Brian, J.A.; Drmic, I.E;, Senthilselvan, A.; Harford, M.M.; Smith, R.W.; Sharieff, W.; Zlotkin, S.H.; Moldofsky, H.; & Roberts, S.W. (2007). “Children with Autism: Effect of Iron Supplementation on Sleep and Ferritin.” Pediatric Neurology, 36(3), pp. 152-158.
- Latif, A.; Heinz, P.; & Cook, R. (2002). “Iron Deficiency in Autism and Asperger Syndrome.” Autism, 6(1), pp. 103-114.
- Reynolds, A.M.; Molloy, C.A.; James, S.J.; Johnson, C.; Clemons, T.; & Hyman, S.L. (12 May 2011). “Iron Status in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” International Meeting for Autism Research, International Society for Autism Research.
- Ryaskin, O.T. (2004). Trends in Autism Research. Nova Biomedical Books.
- WebMD. (2012). “Iron.” WebMD.com.