Gastrointestinal (GI) Problems in Children with Autism

Recent studies have shown that there exists a relationship between autism and gastrointestinal disorders. To be precise, research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that children on the autism spectrum are 3.5 times more likely to have chronic constipation or diarrhea than neurotypical children. Other studies have shown that there is a positive relationship between the symptoms of gastrointestinal problems and the severity of autism symptoms. In other words, gastrointestinal disorders could trigger or even worsen behavioral challenges in children with autism. Thus, it could be helpful for parents of children with autism to understand the connection and to seek appropriate care for their children. Below is a rundown of some of the most common gastrointestinal problems associated with autism and tips to address them.

Chronic Diarrhea
Chronic diarrhea can be understood as diarrhea lasting for more than two weeks. Although periodic bouts of diarrhea could be viewed as normal, chronic diarrhea should be taken seriously. Chronic diarrhea could be as a result of the immune dysfunction, intestinal infection, inflammatory bowel disease, food allergies, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or excessive intake of certain foods such as fruit juices. In some cases, chronic diarrhea can occur due to severe constipation.

Treatment of chronic diarrhea depends on the cause. For instance, if it is due to lactose intolerance or food allergies, it can be treated through dietary restrictions, which can be helpful to start early in kids who don’t process changes in their routine well. In some other cases, medication and more aggressive forms of treatment would be necessary.

Chronic Constipation
Chronic constipation is constipation lasting for more than two weeks. Just like with diarrhea, periodic constipation is normal but chronic constipation is a serious medical issue. The abdominal pain that comes with constipation can be quite severe. The causes of chronic constipation include restricted diets that limit fiber intake, certain medication, and behavioral or sensory issues that interfere with normal toileting. Chronic constipation can be treated through dietary changes and management of toileting behavior. For instance, you can teach your child to sit on the toilet after meals. There are also medical solutions such as laxatives and soluble fiber which can be recommended by the child’s primary physician.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD is commonly referred to as "heartburn." It occurs when the muscles between the esophagus and the stomach lax. This gives way for partially digested food or liquids mixed with acid to go up out of the stomach. This leads to throat discomfort or the feeling of "heartburn."

In children, this pain can be quite severe, and it can be very difficult for nonverbal persons to express their distress. For children with autism, the pain may lead to increased self-injury and other challenging behaviors. Some of the telltale signs associated with GERD include pushing out the jaw, straining the neck, and tapping the throat. Some behavioral measures that can be taken to address GERD include avoiding food near bedtime, elevating the head during sleep, eating smaller meals, and avoiding foods that trigger it.

The Takeaway
It’s important for parents of all children to carefully assess gastrointestinal problems and take the necessary steps to help their children get the appropriate medical care. For parents of children with autism, who may be more likely to experience such issues, early identification and treatment is imperative.

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