Gastrointestinal Problems Could be Linked to Symptoms of Autism


Children who are suffering from autism may have up to eight times issues with the gastrointestinal system than their healthy peers. These symptoms may relate to specific behavioral issues like repetitive motions, irritability and social withdrawal. To gain a new insight into more appropriate and effective autism treatments, researchers are examining how digestive problems may affect children with autism.

The research is the most ethnically diverse and largest study comparing gastrointestinal issues in children suffering from autism. Parents have long reported that their autistic children need to endure more digestive problems, but until now, very little is known about the underlying causes. The gastrointestinal issues autistic children experience could be bidirectional. Digestive issues create additional behavior problems in children with autism and these behavior problems may further exacerbate gastrointestinal problems. One good way to untangle this complex relationship is by investigating how current treatment methods would affect both gastrointestinal symptoms and behavioral problems in children with autism.

The study was conducted in Northern California in a period of eight years between 2003 and 2011, involving 1000 children with autistic symptoms. Diagnoses among these participants were confirmed at the MIND Institute through a series of assessments. About half of the children were Caucasian, one-third of them have Hispanic parents and the remaining was from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Parents of these children were requested to complete a couple of self-administered questionnaires, Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC) and Gastrointestinal History Questionnaire (GIH). The latter provides more detailed information on difficulty swallowing, constipation, diarrhea and abdominal pain. The former provides a measurement on challenging behaviors such as inappropriate speech, hyperactivity, repetitive behaviors, social withdrawal/lethargy and irritability.

The study seems to confirm that autistic children have significantly higher gastrointestinal problems, such as sensitivity to foods, diarrhea, constipation and bloating compared to their healthy peers. Also, autistic children with development delays are far more likely to experience difficulty with swallowing and constipation.

Based on the new data, it appears that children suffering from autism may need to undergo a full gastrointestinal evaluation; this is especially true on non-verbal, non-communicative children. Appropriate medical treatment may be needed to alleviate undiagnosed gastrointestinal problems for this population. Unfortunately, the study didn’t address the question why autistic children with development delays are more likely to experience gastrointestinal problems. The study is supported by the Autism Speaks, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the UC Davis MIND Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.