OBJECTIVE: Verbal apraxia is a neurologically based motor planning speech disorder of unknown etiology common in autism spectrum disorders. Vitamin E deficiency causes symptoms that overlap those of verbal apraxia. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the cell membrane are vulnerable to lipid peroxidation and early destruction if vitamin E is not readily available, potentially leading to neurological sequelae. Inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and malabsorption of nutrients such as vitamin E and carnitine may contribute to neurological abnormalities. The goal of this investigation was to characterize symptoms and metabolic anomalies of a subset of children with verbal apraxia who may respond to nutritional interventions.

DESIGN AND PATIENTS: A total of 187 children with verbal apraxia received vitamin E + polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation. A celiac panel, fat-soluble vitamin test, and carnitine level were obtained in patients having blood analyzed.

RESULTS: A common clinical phenotype of male predominance, autism, sensory issues, low muscle tone, coordination difficulties, food allergy, and GI symptoms emerged. In all, 181 families (97%) reported dramatic improvements in a number of areas including speech, imitation, coordination, eye contact, behavior, sensory issues, and development of pain sensation. Plasma vitamin E levels varied in children tested; however, pretreatment levels did not reflect clinical response. Low carnitine (20/26), high antigliadin antibodies (15/21), gluten-sensitivity HLA alleles (10/10), and zinc (2/2) and vitamin D deficiencies (4/7) were common abnormalities. Fat malabsorption was identified in 8 of 11 boys screened.

CONCLUSION: We characterize a novel apraxia phenotype that responds to polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E. The association of carnitine deficiency, gluten sensitivity/food allergy, and fat malabsorption with the apraxia phenotype suggests that a comprehensive metabolic workup is warranted. Appropriate screening may identify a subgroup of children with a previously unrecognized syndrome of allergy, apraxia, and malabsorption who are responsive to nutritional interventions in addition to traditional speech and occupational therapy. Controlled trials in apraxia and autism spectrum disorders are warranted.