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Health Issues Co-Occurring with Autism

Children with autism frequently suffer separate health issues alongside autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Medical professionals refer to these separate health conditions as comorbidities. Although these conditions are not themselves symptoms of autism, many of them present in children with autism at a much higher rate than in the general population.

Common health problems associated with autism include gastrointestinal disorders, seizure disorders such as epilepsy, feeding/eating issues, disrupted sleep, and a range of mental health disorders.

Gastrointestinal (GI) Disorders

Gastrointestinal (GI) issues are much more common in children with autism than in the general population, with estimations ranging from 23% to 70% of individuals with autism suffering from GI issues like constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, heartburn or intestinal inflammation.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a condition defined by reoccurring seizures, or abnormal electrical activity in the brain. While fewer than 1% of children in the general population suffer from epilepsy, research has shown that 12.5% of children with autism have epilepsy, and some estimates putting that figure much higher.

Feeding or Eating Issues

Eating issues are very common in children with autism. Issues may include

  • Extreme selectivity and aversion to certain flavors and textures
  • Chronic overeating, possibly due to an inability to detect when they are full, which can lead to obesity
  • Pica, a condition characterized by the consumption of non-food items, which can be very dangerous

Disrupted Sleep

Sleep problems are more than twice as common in young children with autism compared to children without autism. By some estimations, around 80% of preschool age children with autism experience sleep disruptions like insomnia and low-quality sleep. Poor sleep can exacerbate symptoms of autism and worsen challenging behaviors.

Mental Health Conditions

Children with autism tend to experience mental health issues at a much higher rate than the general population. Mental health conditions which commonly occur alongside autism include anxiety disorders like OCD. Depression is also very common in children with autism, particularly when they reach adolescence.

Are Health Issues a Sign of Autism?

Not necessarily, although children with autism tend to have more medical issues than their peers. Because certain health issues occur with significantly greater frequency in children with autism, the study of comorbid conditions with ASD is an area of interest for medical researchers. While co-occurring health problems are not a sign of autism on their own, they may be considered part of the larger picture alongside other signs of autism.

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