Study links GI symptoms and autism in children

By Gary Goettling | Emory Magazine | Aug. 4, 2014

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For Veer Patel (above, with mom Minal Patel), a strict schedule curbs GI symptoms.

Five-year-old Veer Patel was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in October 2010. Typical of children "on the spectrum," he manages best with a rigid, unchanging daily routine. Unfortunately, his bowel functions are unpredictable, and he is frequently constipated—conditions that arose some time after his ASD diagnosis.

He is not alone.

Historically, the medical research community has paid scant attention to the issue, but many parents have long noted chronic gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms in their ASD children.

This lack of priority may change in the wake of a new study by researchers at the Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory University School of Medicine. They conducted the first meta-analysis of all published, peer-reviewed research related to autistic children and GI problems. What they found was that children with ASD, when compared to non-ASD children, were four times more likely to experience general GI complaints and three times more likely to experience constipation and diarrhea. These children complained about abdominal pain twice as often as their non-ASD peers.

The purpose of the analysis was twofold, according to coauthor William Sharp, director of the Pediatric Feeding Disorders Program at Marcus Autism Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

"One was to survey what we know about these issues—and we don't know much," he says. "There have been only fifteen studies published in the past thirty-two years that have really good experimental controls.

"We also hope this study prompts the medical community to increase its focus on the prevalence, cause, and remediation of these issues."

While the study confirms the anecdotal experiences of pediatricians and parents, it scrupulously avoids claiming a causal relationship.

Full story in Emory Magazine »