Gastrointestinal disorders

Parents of children with autism are often most concerned about behavior issues, but are surprised that a major medical factor affecting behavior may be gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.

“Parents are more likely to tell you about all the problems they had getting their child to go to bed or trying to get their child to function at school. What they’re not going to tell you about is that their child spends a lot of time in the bathroom or tends to burp a lot,” said Kent Williams, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics.

“Ironically, it is the constipation or reflux that may be causing the other behavioral issues, and if we treat those issues, we often see improvements in behavior.”

About 45 percent of parents enrolling their children in the Autism Treatment Network report GI symptoms, including constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea and diarrhea.

“If your child has autism and GI problems, they’re more likely to have behavioral problems, sleep problems and poorer quality of life than a child with autism who does not have GI problems,” Williams said.

In 2009, Vanderbilt researchers discovered a single gene variant, the MET gene, that may be responsible for both autism and GI disorders, but Williams said they are only in the beginning stages of exploring these genetic links.

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