Autism 101- Digestive Problems

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to discuss the issue of digestive problems for people on the spectrum- but don’t worry, I’ll stick to the science! I won’t regale you with any personal tales on this occasion 😛 😉

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are among the most commonly associated conditions with autism.

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Evidence suggests that autists may be over 3.5 times more likely to suffer from issues such as diarrhea, constipation, food allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases (i.e. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis).

I know- not the most pleasant of subjects, but we can all be adults right? 😉

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Joking aside- these are serious issues for people with autism, especially for children. Autists are already sensitive to such stimuli as sound and touch. Adding GI discomfort to the mix can make things so much more difficult. The associated pain from these conditions can worsen behaviors, and in some cases, trigger regressions.

So what does science have to say about all of this?

As with autism, it’s another game of Cluedo- research is ongoing to determine ‘who-dunnit’. There are many suspects, but the culprit remains unclear.

Bacterial Abnormalities & Carbohydrate Digestion-The gut is home to trillions of bacteria naturally living in harmony with us.  Our gut provides them with food and shelter, and in return they digest certain dietary substances and produce vitamins B and K for us to absorb. This forms what is known as the gut microbiome. Ordinarily bacteria and host exist in harmony, however, if there is an overabundance of certain bacterial strains, this can lead to a number of GI problems. Studies have shown that such overabundance exists in children with autism.

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Abnormalities in carbohydrate digestion have also been reported in cases of autism. The cells of the intestines appear to have difficulty in breaking down and transporting carbohydrates in the gut causing malabsorption of these vital nutrients.

It’s been suggested that these issues with carbohydrates may be connected to the high level of bacteria present in the autistic gut as digestive alterations may influence nutrient availability within the microbiome, but further investigation is needed.

Furthermore, in recent years, evidence is emerging that gut microbes can influence brain development and behavior!

Wuttttttt???!!!

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I know!!!

In particular, there is evidence to suggest that people with autism are missing one specific bacterium- Lactobacillus reuteri.

One study in mice showed that following the addition of this bacterial strain to their diet,  the natural microbiome of the was gut restored AND further restored some behaviors associated with ASD’s! Interestingly, L. reuteri promotes the production of oxytocin, which as previously discussed, is essential for human bonding and social behavior.

Who knew that bacteria could control our brains this way?!

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Brain-Gut Communication and the Role of Serotonin-As in the picture below, the brain and the gut share a very close relationship in the human body.

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The gut in actual fact has it’s own complex nervous system (the enteric nervous system) which regulates the activity of the gut- kind of like a second brain. Together, the gut and the brain form what is known as the brain-gut axis, a two way street where each can influence the other. For example, signals travelling from gut to brain can influence satiety, whereas stress/anxiety signals from the brain to the gut affect gut sensitivity.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter (chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate) within this axis. For example, serotonin plays an important role in the control of intestinal motility. As such, alterations in serotonin levels have been implicated in a number of GI problems.

But how does this relate to autism?

Yep- you guessed it, serotonin levels, like oxytocin, are dysregulated in autism, and therefore likely contribute to associated GI issues.

Further to this, there is also evidence to suggest that certain gut bacteria are involved in the production of serotonin in the body by interacting with serotonin producing cells (enterochromaffin cells). So perhaps alterations in these serotonin producing bacterial colonies may also contribute to these GI issues.

Diet-As people with autism often have restrictive eating habits, it was proposed that perhaps diet may contribute to GI issues. However, studies have shown that although autistic diets may differ, overall nutritional intake does not. On the other hand, many people report improvements in both GI and autistic symptoms following gluten (a protein found in grains like wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy) free diets, but there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this.

Genetics- Finally, scientists believe that as with autism, genetic abnormalities likely contribute to these GI issues. Moreover, as autism and GI problems are so frequently linked, researchers have suggested that perhaps they both share the same underlying genetic mutation or may be caused by some other unknown biological mechanism.

So there we have it! 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this ‘alimentary’ introduction to digestive issues and the spectrum! 😉

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Aoife

Autism 101-Lesser known ASD’s

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today’s post is going to be short and sweet exploring two of the lesser known ASD’s:

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder (or Heller’s syndrome)

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I know… these are a bit of a mouthful, but once you get past the names they’re not that difficult to understand 🙂

Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS):

As discussed in my Intro to the Spectrum, a pervasive developmental disorder impairs normal growth and development of the brain resulting in a wide range of effects (i.e. autism). PDD-NOS is basically a catch all term to describe individuals who are on the spectrum, but do not fit the criteria for specific ASD’s.

So if you had some of the traits of Asperger’s syndrome for example, but didn’t fully fit the bill, you may be given a diagnosis of PDD-NOS.

This is often referred to as atypical autism.

Childhood disintegrative disorder/Heller’s syndrome:

Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) is a rare ASD, estimated to be 60 times less prevalent than classic autism. In comparison to other ASD’s, this low functioning form of autism is quite unusual in it’s late onset.

Children with CDD appear to develop normally before suddenly showing signs of developmental delay around 3-4 years of age. In some cases, there are even reversals in development with loss of speech, motor skills and social function- as if someone hit the rewind button in your brain.

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This is known as regressive autism.

Discovered 35 years prior to autism, to this day, doctors remain baffled as to the cause of this condition.

So there we have it- not quite as complicated as the names suggest 😉

As this is a little more clinical than some of my other posts, I’d like to end on an encouraging note.

Last year, some of you may have come across this viral interview with actor Channing Tatum:

In the video, Channing is interviewed by Carly Fleischmann- a remarkable young woman with non-verbal autism. As a child, Carly was diagnosed with autism, cognitive delay and oral-motor apraxia (the inability to properly coordinate oral movements for speech). At first, such a diagnosis appears devastating, but in this video, Carly proves an ASD diagnosis is not the end of the world.

Through years of persistent therapy and hard work, Carly found ways to communicate by typing with one finger. Although still confronted with the serious challenges of autism, in this video, Carly achieves her dream of becoming the world’s first autistic, non-verbal chat show host! 😀

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When a diagnosis of autism is given, it can be difficult to remain positive. Unlike Dante in Inferno however, we need not abandon hope.

It very much exists.

Whatever your spectrum diagnosis may be, Carly’s story shows that we can succeed in spite of our difficulties 🙂

Aoife

Abbreviations: ASD- Autism spectrum disorder

 

 

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