Locked into a place of meaningless noises, incomprehensible shapes and colours;

exaggerated perceptions of touch, taste and smell, the world becomes a scary place to be.

Children and adults suffering from autism can make little sense of normal codes of social behaviour.

By creating their own set of rules, they try to find a niche of stability and safety within the restricted boundaries of rituals and obsessive behaviour patterns.

Autism is an increasingly common developmental disorder, affecting four times as many boys as girls, regardless of class or race. Although people with autism look like everyone else, they can't communicate well with others and withdraw into an isolated world of their own.

Paul Shattock, Director of the Autism Research Unit at the University of Sunderland, himself a father of an autistic son, has pioneered a new theoretical model on how genetics combine with environmental insults and contribute to the development of the syndrome.

After examining thousands of urine samples, he describes autism as a metabolic disorder, arising when incompletely digested food molecules particularly from protein found in gluten (wheat, barley, rye, oats) and casein (dairy products) manage to find their way into the brain and wreak havoc.

His theory is that a certain set of circumstances conspire to allow protein particles to pass through a "leaky" gut membrane and "leaky" blood brain barrier, causing a toxic response which may lead to the classic symptoms of autism (lack of speech, abnormal movement, repetition, bizarre behaviour).

Shattock makes it quite clear that cutting out wheat and dairy alone may not be a quick fix. The message is that although nutritional factors may be largely to blame, autism is a complex interplay of interrelating factors depending on the individual.

Nutritionists can assist parents and GPs with a comprehensive nutritional approach, addressing these factors and aiding in the repair of the gut membranes -it may prove helpful in alleviating the symptoms of autism.A qualified nutritionist should:

*Optimise diet and absorption from foods *Give advice on how to remove toxic components from the diet.

*Help to promote enzyme activity and correct acid levels in the stomach or intestines.

*Correct gut flora to eliminate fungal or parasitic infestations.

*Correct low nutrient status (vitamins, minerals, fatty acids).

*Boost the immune system to decrease bacterial or viral infections.

To find out more, visit Paul Shattock's website The Autism Research Unit (Tel.0191 510-8922).

The 6th Congress of Autism-Europe will be held in Glasgow, 19-21 May 2000 (for details call 0141 221 5411).

For general advice on autism, contact The National Autistic Society, 393 City Rd, London EC1V 1NE or the support group Allergy Induced Autism (AIA) on 01733 261213.