MADISON, Wis. -

A University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist made a significant discovery that could affect children with autism. Study author Dr. Cara Westmark says, changing an autistic child’s diet could decrease the number of seizures they have.

In a news release, Westmark’s study found a higher rate of seizures among children with autism who were fed infant formula containing soy protein rather than milk protein.

Originally studying a drug she hoped would stop seizures in mice, Westmark replaced their soy-based food with a dairy-based one and the number of seizures surprisingly dropped in half.

“It was quite a surprise when the diet alone had an effect on the seizure rates,” said Westmark.

Knowing that people with autism have a higher rate of seizures, Westmark used data from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. She studied the data of nearly 1,949 children with autism and found if they were fed soy formula, they had 2.6 times as many febrile seizures as the children fed non-soy formula.

Westmark said soy is a widespread ingredient in many foods. Her news release stated about 25 percent of infant formula sold in the United States is based on soy protein.

“If I had a child and couldn’t breast feed or give a cow milk-based formula, I would talk to my pediatrician,” explained Westmark. “There are alternatives to soy out there, so I would not use a soy-based formula.”

She thinks soy’s high level of plant hormones could be impacting seizure rates in autistic children. One study said as many as one in every 88 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism.

“We were excited if a dietary intervention could at least help because the rates are rising so quickly,” said Westmark, who says curbing seizures could prevent neurological damage or lifelong problems like epilepsy.

“If they have fewer seizures, then perhaps the behavior would be better,” she said.

The doctor admits further studies, like a clinical trial, could help strengthen her findings.

There’s no data right now to support how soy formula might impact children who don’t have developmental disabilities.