Gastrointestinal (“GI”) disorders have been proven to be eight times more likely to be experienced by individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (“ASD”) diagnosis than those of their peers (Autismspeaks.org) . You heard that right, eight times more likely! You will commonly see it as chronic constipations, abdominal pain and diarrhea, gastroesophageal reflux, or bowel inflammation.
GI issues can be very tricky with children who have autism. For one, they may not be able to tell you when they don’t feel well. Many times, you may see the discomfort as an increase in disruptive behaviors. The decrease in ability to communicate can make it challenging to know if it is a medical issue or a dietary issue.
Another reason gastrointestinal issues are hard to spot is because many individuals with ASD have something called selective eating, where they only eat a few foods. A lot of the times these foods are highly processed and don’t always include the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains our bodies need (Mayoclinic.org).
When GI issues are spotted the most common first step a lot of doctors recommend is called the “elimination diet” to determine if specific foods are causing the issue. This means they remove one food at a time from a child’s normal diet to see if it helps with any of the symptoms and discomfort. With individuals who are already eating only a limited set of foods, this can be super hard to work through. As a parent you are probably already stressed with your child’s lack of nutritional diet and then a healthcare provider asks you to take away foods. It can be rough, but it is a really great way to rule out allergies or causes of discomfort in a diet.
It is very important that restrictive diets or elimination diets are monitored by healthcare providers and should be very thoughtfully planned out because they can increase risks of nutrient deficiencies.
All parents wants their child to have an adequate amount of nutrients in their diet and to promote lifelong healthy decisions and lifestyles. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has come up with a list of recommendations to help parents follow through with this goal (Mayoclinic.org).
- The individual who has ASD and their caregivers should work with a dedicated care team, which should include a dietitian. The team should continuously monitor the child’s nutritional intake. It is important to note that even if growth appears normal, there may still be some nutritional deficiencies. A care team can include, but is not limited to:
- Primary care physician
- Occupational therapist; and a
- Speech Therapist
- The care team should work together to address any barriers in the diet, such as food selectivity.
- Parents and individuals with ASD should all be involved in coaching, planning and prepping nutritious meals.
Gastrointestinal issues are very frustrating for the individual with autism and for the caregiver. It takes a lot of patience to find solutions and management to GI issues. Keep working through it and talk with the care team about any changes in your child, such as behaviors, moods, or sleep patterns you observe.