With Autism, Diet Restrictions May Do More Harm Than Good

Study finds no increase in gastrointestinal problems in kids with the disorder

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, July 27 (HealthDay News) -- Children with autism do not have a higher incidence of gastrointestinal problems than other children, a new study has found.

However, autistic children do have a higher rate of constipation and eating issues, such as eating the same foods over and over, according to the study. But any number of factors, including medication, could cause these issues, the researchers said.

The findings appear in the August issue of Pediatrics.

Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, medical director of the Kelly O'Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said that the study is an important one because it was the first to scientifically compare the incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) problems in an autistic population with incidence in children who are developing normally.

Even so, it's unlikely to quell a controversy that has been raging for more than a decade.

"A couple of highly publicized cases of autism and loose stools in the late 1990s led to an impression that children with autism had a higher rate of GI dysfunction," she said. "It wasn't well characterized, but that got the story onto the national scene."

This, in turn, led to theories that diets free of gluten and the milk protein casein might help the problems, along with treatment with the hormone secretin. Some even proposed that problems with the gut might be the cause of autistic symptoms, giving the matter added urgency.

But the evidence in favor of these hypotheses was "fuzzy," Manning-Courtney said.

For the new study, researchers followed 124 children with autism and 248 children without autism until they turned 18.

Gastrointestinal diagnoses were classified into five groups: constipation; diarrhea; abdominal bloating, discomfort or irritability; gastroesophageal reflux or vomiting; and feeding issues or selectivity (people with autism often stick with the same food choices and have other "ritualistic tendencies" in eating).

The frequency of GI symptoms was about 77 percent in the autism group and 72 percent among the others, not considered a statistically significant difference.

However, almost 34 percent of the autistic children, compared with nearly 18 percent of the others, had constipation. Feeding issues were present in about 24 percent of the autistic children and 16 percent of those who weren't autistic, the study authors found.

Those differences could stem from what the researchers called neurobehavioral issues connected with autism, such as the ritualistic practices, they said.

"Many patients with autism insist on eating the same thing and might not consume enough fiber," said the study's lead author, Dr. Samar H. Ibrahim, a fellow in gastroenterology and instructor in pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic. "We think this may be contributing to the constipation."

Medications that autistic children take can also interfere with appetite and eating.

"In our study, around 50 percent of children were on stimulant medications, and those might affect appetite and might have something to do with issues with food," Ibrahim said.

Keith A. Young, vice chairman for research in the psychiatry and behavioral science department at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, said he thought "the really interesting thing they found was that there wasn't any indication of celiac disease."

In the group studied, the researchers found just one case. A possible link between celiac disease and autism was proposed as far back as 1961.

"The only difference [between the two groups] was the constipation, which they kind of dismiss," Young said. "And I tend to agree with their conclusion that constipation might be related to the dietary habits of autistic kids."

The constipation and feeding difficulties identified in the study, though, are not the symptoms that people have been buzzing about, Manning-Courtney pointed out. It's mostly been about diarrhea and loose stools.

But the study was a small one and did not rely on rigorous, comprehensive diagnoses of autism for the participants, so it may just stir the pot for people on both sides of the debate.