By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Of all the A2 beta casein dairy products Jeron Van Dyk can now eat, chocolate milk is by far his favourite. Jeron tells me this inside Spectrum Acres, a riding arena designed as a bright, safe, calm place with a trampoline and swing chairs for Jeron and his friends to connect.
This story is about Jeron, autism and beta-casein in dairy milk and how Jeron’s parents, John and Anna VanDyk of Perth County, have completely altered their dairy farming goals to provide milk that sensitive children like Jeron can thrive on.
John and Anna were already parents to five girls when Jeron came along 14 years ago. Three more children were to follow; another girl and a set of twin boys. Jeron was breastfed before transferring to whole store-bought milk at 14 months of age. While the other children fared well drinking regular milk, Jeron did not. Though he’d been thriving as a baby, meeting pediatric milestones and sleeping through the night, everything changed in a few short months.
“We lost eye contact, he was not sleeping through the night and he started retreating into his own world,” recalls Anna. Strangely, he also seemed “addicted” to his bottle of milk, crying and demanding it throughout the night. He was soon diagnosed with autism and the journey of discovering how to care for an autistic child including what he could, and could not eat, began.
Doctors, nurses, research studies and autistic organizations were consulted as John and Anna learned to care for a child with special needs. Experts recommended immediately taking Jeron off gluten and casein and if he was to have dairy it should be A2 beta casein dairy. Unfortunately, at the time of his diagnosis there wasn’t that type of dairy readily available. A1 and A2 refer to beta-casein proteins in the milk. Many milk drinkers can tolerate both kinds of proteins but others can only drink milk containing A2 proteins. Breastmilk, goat milk, and milk from cow breeds such as Jerseys and Norwegian dairy cattle are mostly A2 milks. Other breeds that have focused on milk volume, such as Holsteins, produce milk with both A1 and A2. However, by choosing A2 genetics, dairy cattle can be bred to produce milk with only A2 Beta-casein.
Realizing that Jeron and other kids like him could benefit from A2 milk and eat A2 dairy products without stomach upsets and exacerbating autistic behaviours and learning struggles, John decided to start crossbreeding the Dykcroft dairy herd with Jersey and Norwegian bulls that offered A2 beta-casein genetics. The first generation offspring were 50/50 either way but consistent breeding using A2 Jerseys to increase milk fat and A2 Norwegian genetics to maintain larger-framed cattle (Norwegians are larger so that cattle don’t get too small for a barn designed for Holsteins) have created a herd that is now 80 per cent capable of producing A2 milk.
Jeron thrives on the A2 milk. The Van Dyks do not say A1 beta-casein in dairy milk caused the autism but they do believe it is connected to Jeron’s symptoms and behaviours, as well as overall gut health. In fact, his parents have seen remarkable improvement in a boy they describe as very caring, with a great sense of humour, who loves to connect with people. When I ask Jeron what his favourite part of Spectrum Acres is he points out “host” on his Spell to Communicate (S2C) letter board. He likes to welcome his friends to this fantastic space and connection is a big part of Jeron’s skillset, says Anna.
Jeron is a non-reliable speaker but as he grows older, receives therapy and eats foods that don’t stress his body, he is able to express himself verbally on good days. He used to be completely non-verbal and communicated via YouTube videos. “He’s so smart...he would play a particular video on a loop until we figured out what he was trying to say,” says John. For instance, he would play videos of crying babies wanting bottles, the parents realized Jeron was telling them something. They realized that Jeron was telling them that all babies need A2 milk in their "bubbas" as it is what nature intended and it is a precautionary principle.
Then one day, while shopping in CostCo, John and Anna found a kefir and thought this needs to be made from A2 beta-casein milk! They knew kefir to be a superfood for its probiotic and beneficial bacteria and were keen to add this to Jeron’s diet. They noted the product was created in Etobicoke by M-C Dairy. Not wasting any time, they contacted M-C Dairy owner, Borys, who was excited about the idea of creating a whole line of products from Van Dyk’s A2 beta-casein milk. Under the umbrella of Dairy Farmers of Ontario, the Van Dyks began shipping A2 milk (separating cattle who still have A1 proteins in their milk) to M-C Dairy which now markets four percent fluid milk, four per cent chocolate milk, kefir, sour cream, cream cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese. The Van Dyks earn a five cent premium for milk shipped to M-C Dairy.
Labelled with colourful Polish-themed decorations (Borys’s parents were Polish immigrants), the A2 beta-casein milk products are available in a select number of specialty stores in the GTA area. The Van Dyks travel to Etobicoke regularly to stock up and deliver the dairy products to their older children’s homes as well. The whole family has switched to A2 beta-casein milk products and believes in its benefits for gut health because they’ve seen how well Jeron does on the products. Since that launch, they’ve noted that A2 Milk Company from New Zealand has partnered with AgriFoods out of British Columbia and has A2 fluid milk products on the shelves.
“For us, it’s about awareness,” says John. “We want families to have a choice.” Anna agrees. She wants families to know that sometimes a sensitive person who cannot digest cow milk believes they have lactose intolerance when in fact, they have an A1 intolerance. They want their story to be made known for other families autistic children who may benefit from their experience and are searching for dietary alternatives for their children. “Food is a piece of the puzzle to make life a little easier for these kids,” says John.
For the VanDyks, Jeron’s autism diagnosis has been life-altering. Anna and John have changed how they farm and how they raise and feed their children. Family is everything to the couple and now, life has become more focused and purposeful as they strive to make a great life for Jeron and others on the spectrum. Breeding dairy cattle for A2 milk is one part of that as is the riding barn for families with special needs children, a place they allow certain groups to use freely.
In fact, Anna says the barn was Jeron’s vision. He kept playing the songs Home, by Philip Philips and Lead Me, by Sanctus Real, and with words and gestures, encouraged his parents to create a place where people like him could feel at ease in their body. Just as Jeron loves connecting people, Anna and John have witnessed amazing connections and partnerships along their journey. For instance, Borys of M-C Dairy, who processes and sells their A2 Beta-casein milk, also donates ten cents per unit sold to help cover costs at Spectrum Acres.
There is joy here at Spectrum Acres, along with faith and purpose and so much respect for Jeron and his needs. Jeron wanted to be present for the interview and participate which he did. And when it got too much and he was overwhelmed, his older sister happily picked him up. He has agency in his story and his journey and it was emotional, educational and heart-warming to meet the Van Dyk family and witness it.
For more information on the Van Dyks and what they are doing with their dairy herd and at Spectrum Acres, you can visit their website at https://www.spectrumacres.org/ or follow Spectrum Acres on Facebook.◊