Autism research points to potential link between repetitive behaviors, gut issues

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In children with autism, repetitive behaviors and gastrointestinal problems may be connected, according to new research published in the journal Autism.

Children with autism spectrum disorder are more likely than their typically developing peers to experience a range of gastrointestinal abnormalities, including chronic diarrhea, constipation, food sensitivities, and abdominal pain. These symptoms have been associated with higher levels of irritability and aggressive behavior, but less is known about their relationship with other autism spectrum disorder symptoms, the researchers said.

For the study, the researchers used data from a study designed to test the viability of cord blood transplants as an autism treatment and looked at detailed clinical measures and reports provided by the families of 176 children who were 2 to 7 years old to see if she could find any insights into the drivers of gastrointestinal problems. Roughly 93 percent of the children had at least one gastrointestinal symptom. The research found no association between social and communication difficulties and gastrointestinal symptoms.

The specifics of the relationship are unclear, but it's possible that repetitive behaviors in children with autism could be a coping mechanism that helps them manage their gastrointestinal discomfort, the researchers said, adding that the symptoms of autism often emerge at a time when children aren't in a position to adequately communicate their physical suffering with words.

The study doesn't explain the biological mechanism for the relationship between repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth and hand flapping, and gut problems. However, it helps establish that gastrointestinal symptoms may exacerbate repetitive behaviors, or vice versa, a finding that could one day help lead to helpful intervention, the researchers said.

"[Gastrointestinal] problems are a significant issue for many people with autism and there's evidence that these symptoms might exacerbate certain autism behaviors, which can lead to greater developmental challenges," said Payal Chakraborty, PhD, lead author of the study, in a statement. "We still have a lot to learn about the complicated gut/brain axis.”