Researchers from the University of California, Davis, have found that common gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and bloating are linked to sleep problems, self-harm, and physical complaints in preschool-aged children.
For the study, the researchers recruited 255 children with autism between 2 and 3.5 years old alongside 129 typically-developing children of the same age. To understand their health, pediatricians interviewed their caregivers during medical evaluations. In particular, they asked the caregivers for information on the children's GI symptoms, such as how often they experienced difficulty swallowing, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
The researchers then put the children into two groups. While one group experienced at least one gastrointestinal symptom, the other never or rarely experienced these symptoms in the last three months. They then compared the two groups on developmental, behavioral, and adaptive functioning measures.
All in all, they found that preschool-aged children with autism were 2.7 times more likely to have GI symptoms than their peers. While close to 50% of children with autism reported regular GI issues, just 18% of those without the condition reported the same. Meanwhile, approximately 30% of autistic children had multiple GI symptoms.
This is particularly noteworthy, given that multiple GI symptoms are associated with difficulties in sleeping and attention, as well as in aggression and self-harm. The researchers also noted however that no link was found between those with these symptoms and cognitive development or gender.
“Problem behaviors may be an expression of GI discomfort in preschool-aged children,” says Christine Wu Nordahl, one of the authors of the study. “GI symptoms are often treatable, so it is important to recognize how common they are in children with autism. Treating their GI symptoms could potentially provide some relief to the kids and their parents.”