As most parents of children with autism know, stomach problems go hand in hand with autism spectrum disorders (ASD.). One study, published in 2013, found that children with autism are six to eight times more likely to have gastrointestinal problems than those without autism. Some of the common stomach problems include chronic constipation, diarrhea and gastroesophageal reflux disease(GERD.)
Diagnosing GI problems
No matter which GI problem your child is experiencing, the first step is a doctor’s visit. Your pediatrician might refer you to a specialist for testing. The tests might include blood tests and scans. In addition, the doctor might want to do a rectal exam. Some experts recommend that children with autism who are having stomach problems also be tested for food allergies, including gluten.
GI issues and diet
Children with autism are notorious for having a self-imposed restrictive diet. Some children eat only a few foods. Sensory issues often interfere with a child’s ability or desire to eat a wide variety of foods. This restrictive diet can contribute to stomach issue, for example, a diet low in fiber can lead to chronic constipation. Talking with a dietary counselor or a nutritionist might help you develop a more balanced diet for your child. Your doctor might also be able to recommend supplements and vitamins that can help make sure your child is getting the proper nutrients.
Chronic diarrhea is defined as diarrhea lasting two weeks or longer. It can cause serious health problems and lead to dehydration. There are a number of causes:
Irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn’s disease
- Gluten intolerance
- Food allergies
- Immune dysfunction
- Restrictive diets, such as an drinking an abundance of apple juice
The treatment for chronic diarrhea depends on the cause. If the diarrhea is caused by food allergies, removing the problem food should clear up the problem. In the case of infection, your child’s doctor might prescribe antibiotics.
As with chronic diarrhea, chronic constipation is used when your child has been constipated for more than two weeks. Constipation can cause severe abdominal pain. It is often caused by diets that don’t include enough fiber. Other causes can include medications for other medical conditions or sensory issues that interfere with using the bathroom on a regular basis. Underlying medical conditions can also cause constipation.
Depending on the cause, your doctor might suggest using laxatives or adding a fiber supplement to your child’s diet. If there is an underlying medical condition, treating this should reduce or eliminate the problem. Working to develop regular bathroom habits can also help.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD occurs when the muscle between the stomach and the esophagus is allowing food, along with stomach acids to enter the esophagus. It causes a burning sensation in the chest and throat irritation. It is often worse when lying down. It can cause tissue damage in the esophagus. Your doctor might suggest using behavioral strategies to help relieve the pain, including not eating for several hours before bedtime, using an extra pillow to elevate the head and eating small meals throughout the day. You might also be asked to keep track of foods your child eats and his level of discomfort to find which foods, if any, trigger the symptoms. You can then avoid giving these foods to your child. There are also medications, such as antacids or histamine-2 blockers that can help.
An allergy or intolerance to certain foods, such as gluten, can also cause stomach problems. Your doctor can test to see if your child has any food allergies and then his diet can be adjusted. Eliminating these foods should help to relieve the stomach issues.
For more information:
"Gastrointestinal Issues in Autism Spectrum Disorders," 2014,Elaine Y. Hsiao, Ph.D. , Harvard Review of Psychiatry: https://poo.caltech.edu/static/pdf/Gastrointestinal_Issues_in_Autism_Spectrum.5.pdf
"Recommendations for Treating GI Tract Symptoms in Children with Autism Issued," 2010, January 4, Pauline Anderson, Medscape:https://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/714533
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.