Health Problems in Autism Require New ApproachThe co-occurrence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other medical issues may impact behavior and social skills in children with ASD. Most studies into the intersection of health issues and ASD focus on individual medical conditions, but a new study finds that the interaction of several medical conditions—gastrointestinal problems, sleep disorders, and seizures—has a significant effect on children with ASD. The findings could help healthcare practitioners identify and treat issues in children with ASD.

The researchers performed statistical analyses of two datasets: the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) and the Simons Simplex Collection (SCC). AGRE contains data on ‘multiplex’ families—families in which more than one child has ASD—while the SSC focuses on ‘simplex’ families, which have just one child with ASD. Both datasets contain detailed information about autism symptoms and other medical problems like gastrointestinal issues, allergies, and others. The researchers evaluated how each health issue related to ASD symptoms. They then examined the connection between social and behavioral problems in ASD and health issues.

When a child with ASD had gastrointestinal issues, a sleep disorder, or seizures, the child was more likely to have one or two of the other medical issues. Children with gastrointestinal issues were more likely to have sleep disorders or seizures than children who did not have gastrointestinal issues. Sleep disorders also increased the likelihood of having gastrointestinal issues. These three health issues were more prevalent in children with ASD than in family members without ASD. This indicates that these problems are linked to ASD. Other health issues, like allergies and asthma, were as common in siblings of children with ASD as they were in children with ASD, which suggests that there is no link between asthma or allergies and ASD.

The study also demonstrated that children with co-occurring medical conditions tend to be less socially engaged than children with only ASD or with only one other medical condition. Children with co-occurring conditions also had more behavioral problems and struggled more with everyday life skills.

“Everyone is focusing on the autism symptoms. Addressing medical symptoms in children with autism may have a watershed effect on other parts of their life in terms of the effectiveness of treatments,” stated lead researcher Pat Levitt, Simms/Mann Chair in Developmental Neurogenetics at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Many medical professionals may focus on psychiatric issues to the exclusion of other health problems. The results indicate that there is a need for interdisciplinary treatment approaches for ASD.

This research is published in the journal Autism Research.

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