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Large Study Supports GI Link to Problem Behaviors in Kids with Autism

Findings back Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network guidelines on proactively evaluating and treating associated medical conditions
November 06, 2013


A “Top Ten Advances in Autism Research 2013” Selection
See all the year’s “Top Ten” here.


A large new study on a diverse group of children supports earlier evidence that children with autism experience high rates of GI distress. The findings also linked this distress to more frequent behavior problems such as social withdrawal, irritability and hyperactivity.

The study, funded in part by Autism Speaks, appears in this month’s Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“This study brings forward evidence that adds further support to what parents have been telling the scientific community for years," says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. “Gastrointestinal dysfunction in autism is real.”

Last year, Autism Speaks-Autism Treatment Network helped develop the first treatment guidelines for managing GI disorders in children with autism. At medical conferences and community meetings, its clinicians have been urging doctors to look for and treat underlying medical conditions – including GI distress – that may be contributing to autism-related behaviors.

This is especially important before considering any behavior-modifying medications, says Autism Speaks Vice President for Medical Research Paul Wang. “Whenever medical issues are exacerbating behavioral problems, treatment should be directed at the underlying root causes, rather than using psychoactive medications as Band-Aids,” he says. “Doctors taking care of these children should proactively evaluate them for these problems, especially since many of these young patients can’t communicate the pain and distress they feel.”

A large, ethnically diverse study
In the new study, researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute looked at 960 children in the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study. The children were 2 to 5 years old when they enrolled. Roughly half were white and one-third Hispanic. The remainder came from diverse backgrounds. Just over half (499) had a confirmed diagnosis of autism.

The children's parents completed two questionnaires. One assessed GI symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. The other measured problem behaviors including irritability, social withdrawal, repetitive behaviors and hyperactivity.

* The parents of children with autism were six-to-eight times more likely to report that their children experienced frequent bloating, constipation, diarrhea and food sensitivities than were the parents of typically developing children.

* Parents of children with autism and GI distress more frequently reported irritability, social withdrawal, repetitive behavior and hyperactivity than did parents whose children with autism didn’t have GI symptoms.

"Although the biological mechanisms behind GI issues remain an active area of research, these findings continue to teach us that autism is a whole-body disorder in some individuals,” Dr. Ring comments. “Therapeutic development in autism must include targets beyond the brain."

Last year, the AS-ATN – through its federally funded work as the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P) – contributed to a special issue of Pediatrics on the health and medical treatment of children with autism. The issue included the following reports, now available for free download:

Management of Constipation in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Gastrointestinal Conditions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Nutrient Intake from Food in Children with Autism