Children with autism are six to eight times more likely to suffer gastrointestinal problems than typically developing children, according to new research from the University of California-Davis’ MIND Institute.
“After years of parents raising concerns about such symptoms, the huge differences we see between parental reports on children with autism spectrum disorder versus those on children with typical development puts to rest the idea that gastrointestinal problems among children with autism spectrum disorder are just an accumulation of case reports,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, principal investigator for the CHARGE Study and a researcher affiliated with the MIND Institute.
“Our data clearly show that gastrointestinal problems are very common in children with autism.”
The study is the largest and most ethnically diverse research to compare digestive problems in autistic children with developmental delay and typical development. It is also the first to investigate the link between stomach upsets and behavior problems.
“Parents of children with autism have long said that their kids endure more GI problems, but little has been known about the true prevalence of these complications or their underlying causes,” said lead author Virginia Chaldez, Ph.D.
Researchers, however, are still unsure which problem comes first.
“The GI problems they experience may be bidirectional. GI problems may create behavior problems, and those behavior problems may create or exacerbate GI problems. One way to try to tease this out would be to begin investigating the effects of various treatments and their effects on both GI symptoms and problem behaviors,” said Chaldez.
For the study, the parents of nearly 1,000 children (between the ages of 24 and 60 months)who were enrolled in the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study in North Carolina filled out two questionnaires.
The first questionnaire detailed GI health history (GIH) and covered stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation and problems with swallowing. The next questionnaire was a behavior checklist (ABC). It detailed occurrences of irritability, social withdrawal/lethargy, repetitive behavior, hyperactivity and inappropriate speech.
Approximately half of the study population was white, with one-third Hispanic and the remainder from other ethnic or racial backgrounds.
The findings showed that children with autism were six to eight times more likely to have food sensitivities, bloating, constipation and diarrhea than typically developing children. It was also found that children with developmental delays suffered five times as much constipation and were much more likely to have problems with swallowing.
The researchers also point out that hyperactivity and repetitive behavior may be coping mechanisms for physical discomfort. They believe that autistic children may benefit from a full GI evaluation, especially if they lack verbal skills. It is possible that treatments that improve digestion may lead to an improvement in problem behaviors.
Source: UC Davis MIND Institute.
This article first appeared on Psych Central on 9 November, 2013.