Research Review: Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders Have More Gastrointestinal Symptoms than Children with Typical Development or Developmental Delay

New research shows that children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are two-and-a-half-times more likely to have chronic gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms at young ages than children without autism.

This large longitudinal study observed the children of Norwegian mothers who were asked about their GI disturbances during the first three years of their lives. Questionnaires were given to the mothers to complete for their children at 18 and 36 months of age. The researchers concluded that the mothers of the children with ASD were more likely to report symptoms of GI issues such as constipation and food allergy/intolerance when they were 6 to 18 months old, and greater probabilities of diarrhea, constipation, and food allergy/intolerance when they were 18 to 36 months old compared to children with typical development. The children with ASD were more likely to have GI disturbances than children with developmental delay.
Michaeline Bresnahan, PhD, first author and assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School states: “We not only learned that these symptoms appeared early in infancy; we also found that children with ASD were at significantly increased risk for these symptoms to persist compared with typically developing children.”

Ezra Susser, MD, PHD, co-senior author and professor of both Psychiatry and Epidemiology at the Mailman School and Columbia University Medical Center notes: “The longitudinal nature of the study allowed us to uncover the presence of GI complaints in early life–before mothers knew their child would be diagnosed with autism.”

Although very compelling, the link between GI disturbances and autism is still unclear and needs to be investigated further. The study did conclude that children with autism are more likely to present with GI symptoms. However, the majority of children with GI disturbances early in life will not go on to be diagnosed with autism. The presence of these symptoms may shed light on the underlying nature of the disorder among this subgroup of children diagnosed with ASD.

Bresnahan, M., Hornig, M., Schultz, A.F., Gunnes, D.H., Lie, K.K., Magnus, P…Lipkin, W.I. (2015). Association of maternal report of infant and toddler gastrointestinal symptoms with autism. JAMA Psychiatry, 72(5), 466-474. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.3034

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