Popular knowledge states that there may be a connection between autism and problems with diarrhea and constipation. Many paediatricians do not agree or know of a direct connection. Is it true?
The quick answer is that a certain number of children who suffer from autism seem to have troubles in the toilet.
Dr. Cynthia Molloy, a researcher at the Children's Hospital Medical Centre in Cincinnatti states, "Children with autism are at increased risk for chronic GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms. Pediatricians may say that all kids get diarrhea and constipation, but in reality, it is better to say that 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 they both show a significantly increased risk of gastrointestinal (GI) 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.
To date, the reasons for this increased risk are still unclear. Molloy suggests several possibilities, ranging from a) a greater vulnerability to infections due to their compromised immune systems to b) possible sensory processing issues that could make it scary or difficult to use a toilet.
The only thing that is certain is, that researchers have not been able to determine whether there is any causal link between autism and GI issues.
One exception to this thinking comes from a small study in the UK. It 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. It certainly implies that the two are linked in some way.
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."