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Are Children With Autism at Higher Risk for Gastrointestinal Problems?

Sara Connolly, MD, FAAP, Board Certified Pediatrician
January 3, 2019 . 2 min read

In November 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published an article discussing gastrointestinal problems in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The aim of the article was to discuss how common or uncommon GI disease was in children with ASD as well as to lay a path for future research into treating GI disease in these children.

The article, published in Pediatrics, suggests that children with ASD have problems with constipation, diarrhea, and chronic diarrhea as least as frequently as children without ASD. However, it does not report an increased incidence of GI disease compared to children without ASD. It also discusses whether the problems are related to the biology of that child or if they arise due to behavioral patterns associated with autism spectrum disorders, such as food avoidance. There are several biological theories, including the idea that there may be an immune system or a brain/gut explanation for GI dysfunction in these kids.

The article reports that more research needs to be done to determine if the nutritional needs of children with ASD vary from those without autism and why. Studies done thus far suggest there are some nutritional differences, but the authors do not claim to understand the reason. The need to examine ASD as a whole-body issue is becoming more and more evident as scientists learn more about ASD.

Doctors and families need to be observant for GI problems in their patients with ASD and to recognize that communication problems may add another barrier to timely diagnosis. Parents should watch their child for any food issues, including a self-limited diet, as well as for GI pain, constipation, and diarrhea. The good news is that children with ASD appear to respond to medical interventions as well as those without.

Sources:

  • Coury DL, Ashwood P, Fasano A, Fuchs G, Geraghty M, Kaul A, Mawe G, Patterson  P, Jones NE
  • Gastrointestinal conditions in children with autism spectrum disorder: developing a research agenda
  • Pediatrics
  • 2012 Nov;130 Suppl 2:S160-8.

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