Autism is a diagnosis that is hard enough for parents to deal with. But ask many parents of autistic children and they will tell you that their offspring also have frequent digestive problems. It seems that autism and GI problems go hand and hand in a large number of cases, though research on this phenomenon is inconclusive.
How Common is it?
According to a study conducted by the Autism Treatment Network, GI problems occur in half of all autistic children, though this number has been estimated in other reports to be as high as 84%. Because of this researchers have begun looking for a connection between the two conditions in the hope of finding a cause of autism, and eventually a cure.
As parents of autistic children are aware, autism is just one condition on the autistic spectrum, a group of pervasive developmental disorders that all have similarities to each other, but vary in severity. Research into autism and GI problems has found that there is no specific relation between the type of autistic spectrum disorder and specific GI problems however other studies have indicated that there is a link between the two in a more general sense.
Autistic Enterocolitis: What’s all the Fuss?
One condition that is receiving a lot of attention in the discussion of autism and GI problems is something called autistic enterocolitis. Doctors and researchers are going back and forth in a heated debate about whether or not this condition exists. Autistic enterocolitis is allegedly a new type of inflammatory bowel condition, and some have tried to make the link between this condition and childhood vaccines, although this has not been proven in research studies.
Hand in Hand, Not Cause and Effect
Most researchers agree that autism and GI problems are co-morbid conditions and that the GI problems do not cause autism. However some parents disagree. There are bodies of anecdotal evidence from parents that their child’s autistic behaviors dramatically improved after treatment for their GI problems. However, according to information published in The Cochrane Library in 2009, 13 different research studies have been unable to find any solid proof to substantiate this claim.
Food Allergies and Diet as Treatment
Research has shown that in children with autism and GI problems, often the cause of the GI problems can be food related. There is substantial evidence to indicate that autistic children are extremely sensitive to certain food products, mainly gluten (a protein found in wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy products).
Many children with autism have permeable intestinal tracts, a phenomenon called “leaky gut” and there are a number of reasons cited for it; from diseases to yeast over growth to heavy metal toxicity. The theory is that these children are unable to completely break down gluten and casein resulting in a buildup of opioids in the body, causing a high pain tolerance, problems concentrating and repetitive behavior - all symptoms of autism. Parents can easily experiment with gluten and casein free diets for their children to see if this helps.