New Study: Research Finds Higher Rates of Gastrointestinal Illness (and other Medical Conditions) in Autism and ADHD


boy_tummyache_iStock_000014831124XSmall-200x300Hooray, another scientific study that validates what autism parents and biomedical autism practitioners have known for years: that children with autism have higher rates of medical conditions. Autism parents globally have shouted from rooftops (and to their doctors!), “My child is ill, help me!” Routinely, they have been ignored – mainly because the prevailing perspective of autism does not accept ASD as a physiological condition. Because of this, millions of children don’t receive common sense treatment. This ignorance must end! A new study by Schieve, et al. published in Research in Developmental Disabilities, indicates that children with autism (as well as ADHD and other developmental delays) have higher rates of medical conditions than their peers. These medical diagnoses include: asthma, eczema, headaches and earaches, food allergies, and diarrhea or colitis. The study compared children with developmental disabilities to those without, and those with autism to children with other types of developmental disabilities. It’s a substantive finding, involving a large sample size: 41,000 children aged 3 to 17 years. 5,469 children had one or more of the following diagnoses: autism, intellectual disability, ADHD, learning disability or other developmental delay. According to Schieve (in an article she published at, “As a group, these children (with developmental disabilities) had higher than expected rates of all of the medical conditions we studied.” Specifically, they were:
  • 1.8 times more likely than children without developmental disabilities to have ever had an asthma diagnosis,
  • 1.6 times more likely to have had eczema or a skin allergy during the past year,
  • 1.8 times more likely to have had a food allergy during the past year,
  • 2.1 times more likely to have had three or more ear infections during the past year,
  • 2.2 times more likely to have had frequent severe headaches or migraines during the past year, and
  • 3.5 times more likely to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year.
These increased rates of health conditions were true even for children diagnosed with ADHD or learning disability, but not diagnosed with autism or intellectual disability. As an autism nutritionist that lectures about the influence of food on biochemistry, the gastrointestinal system, and certain physical symptoms common with ASD, one particular finding stands out to me. When they compared the developmental disability groups to each other: “Children with autism were twice as likely as children with ADHD, learning disability or other developmental delay to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year. They were seven times more likely to have experienced these gastrointestinal problems than were children without any developmental disability.” So many parents around the world are frustrated, and too many children needlessly suffer, because when gastrointestinal symptoms are described to “mainstream” physicians, they do not “see” what their paradigm does not believe. Therefore, I all too often hear from parents that their child’s gastrointestinal issues (such as chronic diarrhea) are dismissed by their doctor as “just the autism.” Symptoms and solutions are being ignored, while children go without the medical care and insurance coverage they desperately need. This information is vital, and can be life changing for many. Schieve’s study demonstrates that children with developmental delays need MEDICAL care, and that they CAN be treated. Many of the conditions highlighted in the study  typically involve the immune system (asthma, allergies, ear infections) and gastrointestinal systems. As I explain in my book, Nourishing Hope for Autism, there are several genetic conditions and environmental assaults that lead to and/or exacerbate the malfunctioning of these systems. It’s a complex situation where genetics and environment play a role, and these systems (immune and GI) impact each other in a vicious cycle, and often include further factors such as detoxification challenges, metabolic concerns, and nutritional deficiencies. It’s good news that studies like this come out – and good news that the influential organization Autism Speaks is sharing it. Indeed, they require hard science to overcome their historic denial. As the medical community and key autism awareness advocates inevitably recognize these underlying medical conditions, address them accordingly, and recommend “do-no-harm” interventions like diet changes and supplementation, children everywhere can get better. Why change diet? Because ASD children routinely present with multiple sensitivities or allergies related to foods (and food ingredients) in the traditional American diet. In order to absorb nutrients, food must be properly digested in the gastrointestinal tract. Offending foods trigger the gut’s immune system, affecting a reaction that creates inflammation, pain and digestive symptoms. This perpetuates discomfort, decreases nutrient absorption, and reduces nutritional status. When gastrointestinal disorders and inflammation (i.e. immune system function) are present, addressing diet is most helpful to the comfort and health of the child – and well as their related autism/ADHD symptoms. In my ten years of clinical experience, I have hundreds of clients who’ve experienced how removing foods that trigger inflammation (such as those containing the proteins gluten and casein) reduce pain, improve attention, and decreases behavioral symptoms. Equally important with any “autism diet” is the addition of good nutrition. Nutrient dense and probiotic-rich fermented foods are nourishing, healing to the gut, and aid systemic healing. Additionally, nutritional supplementation can be very helpful for supplying specific nutrients and supporting the gastrointestinal and immune systems. I am enthused. These findings unquestionably validate biomedical approaches to ASD. No longer should parents be laughed at when they suggest addressing their child’s physical symptoms with tactics as innocuous as the omission of a food substance. Let NOW be the time we embrace one single shift in perspective – that ASD is a full body disorder (and that diet is a foremost concern). While no one can specifically determine the extent to which an ASD child’s health and life potential can improve – the fact remains that this potential does exist. Accepting and sharing this truth in the face of mainstream denial is my moral responsibility and personal passion. To bring more light to parents’ positive experience with diet changes, I’ve created a new series on my blog, Getting Your Hopes Up: Stories of Healing Thru Diet and Nutrition. You can read more about improvements and recovery through diet changes here. —————– Schieve LA, Gonzalez V, Boulet SL, Visser SN, Rice CE, Braun KV, Boyle CA. Concurrent medical conditions and health care use and needs among children with learning and behavioral developmental disabilities, National Health Interview Survey, 2006-2010. Research in Developmental Disabilities. 2012 Mar;33(2):467-76. Epub 2011 Nov 24.

Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant who received her master’s degree in medical nutrition with distinction from Arizona State University. She is also a published nutrition researcher and has specialized in complex neurological conditions, particularly autism spectrum disorders and ADHD for over 20 years. Julie is the award winning author of Nourishing Hope for Autism, co-author of a study proving the efficacy of nutrition and dietary intervention for autism published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrients, and also the founder of Download her free guide, 12 Nutrition Steps to Better Health, Learning, and Behavior.


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