Like most psychiatric diagnoses, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined by a set of symptoms. Many children with ASD have physical symptoms that not only make their autism symptoms worse, but my lie at the root of why they have autism in the first place. There are three areas in autism where we might be able to make a difference: gut issues, immune system dysfunction and brain inflammation.
About 80 percent of kids on the spectrum have some type of gut issue. It has been shown that many have a different gut environment (microbiome) than neurotypical siblings and unaffected peers. A study in which children on the spectrum underwent fecal transplants (a technique which attempts to normalize that gut environment) showed 80 percent improvement of gastrointestinal symptoms and 20 to 25 percent improvement in autism-related behaviors such as social skills and sleeping habits.
Gluten/casein free diet studies have showed mixed responses with half of the placebo-controlled studies showing benefit with core autism symptoms. Working with a practitioner that has expertise in these areas can make a difference in a child’s quality of life, inludingless pain, improved sleep, less aggression and possibly a child’s core autism symptoms.
Immune system dysfunction is also an area of interest in addressing the needs of a child with ASD. There is a subgroup of children on the spectrum that have environmental allergies, recurrent ear infections, chronic nasal congestion or other signs of immune dysfunction. Fixing the gut can make a difference in immune function. There are also supplements that might help balance the immune response.
Another area of intervention is brain inflammation. There have been multiple studies showing increased inflammation in the brains of children on the spectrum. This is usually the direct result of diet, chronic low-grade infection or autoimmunity. Identifying and treating those causes can also improve core ASD symptoms.
Regardless of the details of a particular child’s ASD, it is essential for parents to know that there are physical issues with most of these children, and treating those issues can improve the core symptoms of their autism.
James Neuenschwander, MD, Fellow Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs