A number of case reports have indicated a link between celiac disease and autism, however, a new study shows while some children with autism have a gluten sensitivity, there isn’t a link between celiac disease and autism.
Celiac disease is a digestive disease that interferes with the absorption of nutrients because of a reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. When those with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system reacts and damage or destroys the villi – small protrusions in the small intestine that absorb nutrients from foods. When the villi are damaged, you become malnourished, no matter how much healthy food you eat.
Some of the symptoms of celiac disease include:
- Abdominal bloating and pain
- Weight loss
- Bone loss
- Absence of menstruation
Some people don’t have symptoms for many years but still have damage to their intestine causing problems later such as anemia, osteoporosis or liver disease.
Gastrointestinal Issues and Autism
Many children with autism experience gastrointestinal problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children with autism are 3.5 times more likely to have chronic diarrhea or constipation than children without autism. Some experts believe there is a link between GI symptoms and the severity of autism.
Researchers have also looked whether gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, contributes to, causes or is linked to autism. Some case reports have shown a link and some parents have reported that switching their child to a gluten free diet has helped to improve behavior.
Celiac Disease and Autism
While gastrointestinal issues are common in children with autism, the new study, completed in Sweden, shows there is not a link between celiac disease and autism. Researchers looked at medical records for 290,000 people who had previously had intestinal biopsies – the most accurate way to diagnose celiac disease. They found 27,000 with confirmed celiac disease, 12,000 with intestinal inflammation but no celiac disease and 3,700 whose blood tests showed antibodies as a reaction to wheat proteins. There were also 213,000 who had normal biopsies.
Based on the results, researchers ruled out a connection between autism and celiac disease. According to Dr. Joseph Murray, the author of the study, “If there was a connection – either hidden celiac disease causing autism or autism causing celiac disease, it should have shown up in a study of this size…This finally brings some finality to that debate.” 
Although the study did not show a link between celiac disease and autism, researchers did indicate that children diagnosed with celiac disease did have a higher risk of a later diagnosis of autism. There were also children with antibodies indicating a gluten sensitivity. These children also has a higher risk of later being diagnosed with autism. Even so, researchers pointed out there maybe other explanations, such as blood tests can show false positives or because the children had GI issues, blood tests were more likely to be drawn, skewing the pool of medical records