There is a great deal of interest in understanding the connection between autism and acid reflux with new research on the horizon. While there has been research in this area, the studies were small and have limited value. More recently, researchers have started to look more closely at the autism/reflux connection. Specifically, there is interest in identifying whether children with autism are at greater risk for having a digestive condition such as GERD, constipation, diarrhea and food allergy, as well as identifying the best approach to diagnosis and treatment.
Ask any parent of a child with ASD and you will hear a lot of questions and concerns about eating and digestion. Some of the more recent studies indicate that the number of children with autism and digestive issues ranges from less than 10% to over 50%. There is evidence that Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) may be significantly more common in children with autism than in typically developing children. Researchers are looking at a genetic marker called a “Met Gene” that may help doctors and parents identify children with autism who are at increased risk for gastrointestinal symptoms. This is really significant when you think about it. As a preschool special educator, I have worked with many children over the years with significant digestive issues that affect their learning and behavior. One of the biggest barriers for a child with autism is communication. The frequent tantrums and outbursts that I see every day are hard to read. Is she sick? Is she frustrated? In pain? Does she have a stomach ache? Constipated? Parents and teachers are left guessing about this all the time. So having a test to guide diagnosis will help greatly since most children with autism cannot identify the source of their pain and discomfort.
In addition to the communication barriers to diagnosis, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are concerned that GERD may be under-diagnosed and under-treated in children with autism because the presenting symptoms may be so different. Doctors and parents may need to look at more subtle clues such as a history of GERD or colic in infancy, posturing/arching/Sandifer Syndrome, self injury, vomiting, rumination (re-chewing and re-swallowing food) and regurgitation (food coming up the esophagus and back to the stomach).
We know parents and doctors are trying a variety of treatment approaches to address the digestive issues such as the gluten free/casein free diet, elimination diets and vitamins and supplements. A group of medical experts has been reviewing the research with the goal of developing a set of guidelines for diagnosing and treating digestive conditions associated with autism. It is hoped that the new guidelines will be released early in the new year and published in the journal Pediatrics. Doctors, parents and teachers will greatly benefit from this cutting edge information.
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