Autism and Co-occurring Conditions: Gastrointestinal Issues

Gastrointestinal problems are one of the most common co-morbid conditions in children with autism. Some studies suggest that the percentage of individuals with autism who also suffer from gut issues is as high as 50%. While several studies have documented a correlation between food allergies, constipation, and diarrhea, there is no definitive understanding of why these difficulties tend to plague individuals with autism, though there are theories.

The most common theory is the “leaky-gut theory,” or autistic enterocolitis, as described by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Basically, it means that there are larger-than-normal spaces between the cells of the gut wall, allowing undigested foods and other toxins to enter the blood stream. This triggers the immune system to attack the “invaders,” leaving the individual susceptible to food sensitivities and an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria within the intestinal walls.

A study out of Harvard University found that 43% of the patients with autism suffered from “leaky-gut syndrome,” as compared to 0% of the control group. While it is clear that people with autism are more likely to suffer from leaky-gut syndrome, it’s still unclear what causes these issues, and what they have to do with the symptoms of autism.

Many scientists and parents alike believe that gut issues can exacerbate the symptoms of autism. Internet forums are filled with stories of children who suddenly started talking and connecting with others, and who showed a decrease in self-stimulatory, disruptive behaviors, after treating gastrointestinal issues. There is evidence that treating gastrointestinal issues can improve symptoms in some children with autism, but the benefits don’t apply to all children.

One of the most common treatments for GI issues is the GFCF (gluten-free, casein-free) diet. Essentially, this requires removing all gluten and casein from your child’s diet. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, and is found in many common foods. Casein is a protein found in milk and other dairy products. Removing all traces of gluten and casein from your child’s diet can be a challenge, as both substances are found in many common foods, but the popularity of gluten-free diets has made it easier to find suitable substitutes for everyday foods.

Many parents report positive changes when their child is on the GFCF diet, including a decrease in diarrhea or constipation, better focus, increased language and social interaction, and decreased self-stimulatory or aggressive behaviors. Unfortunately, these benefits only occur in certain cases. The only way to tell if your child will respond to the diet is to give it a try.

Other treatments for gastrointestinal issues include antifungals (treating for yeast), probiotics, and vitamins. Often, these are used in conjunction with the GFCF diet. Studies show that leaky-gut syndrome can lead to a lack of “good” bacteria along with an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in the gut, including yeast. Antifungals and probiotics are used to restore proper balance to the intestines, and vitamins are used to replace nutrients that are lost through the leaky gut.

To read other articles in this series on autism and co-morbidity click here