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Is There a Connection Between Autism and Gastrointestinal Problems?

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Updated July 11, 2010

Question: Is There a Connection Between Autism and Gastrointestinal Problems?
I've heard that there may be a connection between autism and problems with diarrhea and constipation. My pediatrician doesn't know anything about this. Is it true?
Answer: If you think an awful lot of children with autism seem to have troubles in the bathroom, you're absolutely right.

According to Dr. Cynthia Molloy, a researcher at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnatti, "Children with autism are at increased risk for chronic GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms. Pediatricians may say that all kids get diarrhea and constipation, but children on the autism spectrum are far more likely to have chronic symptoms."

According to Molloy, two research studies have come up with slightly different numbers, but both show a significantly increased risk of gastrointestinal problems. About three to four percent of typical children have chronic GI issues, but somewhere between 12 to 19 percent of autistic children seem to have such problems. Children with regressive autism (autism that suddenly occured after a year or more of typical development) are at particularly high risk.

The reasons for this increased risk are somewhat unclear. Molloy suggests several possibilities, ranging from infections due to compromised immune systems to sensory processing issues that could make it scary or difficult to use a toilet.

So far, researchers have not been able to determine whether there is any causal link between autism and GI issues. One small study in the UK, however, found that GI issues and autistic symptoms showed up at the same time. If this is really the case, it might support a theory that the same gene or environmental factor causes both problems.

Another recent study at Vanderbilt University reported discovering a gene that mutates more often among autistic children. This discovery, says Molloy, "is important because in addition to being involved in brain development, it's also involved in protecting the gastrointestinal system."

Sources:

Campbell DB, Sutcliffe JS, Ebert PJ, Militerni R, Bravaccio C, Trillo S, Elia M, Schneider C, Melmed R, Sacco R, Persico AM, Levitt P. A genetic variant that disrupts MET transcription is associated with autism. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Nov 7;103(45):16834-9.

Interview with Dr. Cynthia Molloy, March 13, 2007.

Jyonouchi H, Geng L, Ruby A, Zimmerman-Bier B. Dysregulated innate immune responses in young children with autism spectrum disorders: their relationship to gastrointestinal symptoms and dietary intervention. Neuropsychobiology. 2005;51(2):77-85.

Molloy CA, Manning-Courtney, P. Prevalence of Chronic Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Children with Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism 2003. 7(2) 165-171.

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