In recent years, autism has become a household term. Today, most people know someone affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or they have been diagnosed as having ASD themselves. And although ASD has become an increasingly prevalent condition among children, very little is known about its origin. ASD is a developmental disorder characterized by various behaviors such as repetitive behaviors that they have difficulty controlling. They often struggle with social skills and understanding social cues or with speech and nonverbal communication.
In addition to these behavioral issues, individuals with ASD share unique strengths and differences. What is also known is that no two individuals with autism are the same. ASD is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences, best described by the “spectrum” of the disorder. Some individuals at one end of the spectrum may appear quite normal, while those at the opposite end suffer from both developmental and cognitive delays that impair social functioning and communication.
Along with developmental dysfunctions, individuals with ASD may have other conditions that range from psychological disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), to medical or allergic conditions. In fact, food allergies are the most common allergic condition in children with ASD. There is speculation that an immune dysfunction and autoimmune diseases may be at play, but there is still a lot to be learned in this area.
One potential theory behind the incidence of food allergies among children with ASD is the connection between the gut and brain, referred to as the gut-brain axis. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is extremely sensitive to emotion, and the brain-gut relationship is quite intimate. Each one of our emotions – anger, sadness, excitement and stress – can set off reactions in our stomach, ranging from discomfort to diarrhea.
Over 100 million nerve cells line the gastrointestinal tract. These nerve cells are part of an intricate system called the enteric nervous system. In the simplest terms, these nerves affect GI blood flow and acid secretions that aid in digestion. However, these nerves also signal our brain when we feel hungry or full, or when we have eaten something that doesn’t agree with us. Our gut also knows immediately when we feel sad, scared, or stressed. Stress can affect the rate food moves through the GI tract, or create an inflammatory state with a reduced the immune system response, making individuals more open to infection. Additionally, stress can cause GI symptoms, which in turn can cause stress.
Individuals with ASD are highly sensitive. Their senses are heightened and the slightest nuance or change in routine, light, smell, or temperature can cause them great discomfort. Their coping skills in this area are minimal. Most individuals with ASD are also extremely sensitive to the flavor, color, and texture of food as well, which limits their eating choices.
A food allergy adds an additional challenge. When children with ASD are nonverbal and have limited communication, much of their physical discomfort manifests behaviorally. This behavior causes stress, which can increase the inflammation and discomfort in the stomach. Conversely, pain associated with stomach discomfort can cause stress, thus making the discomfort worse.
Another theory behind the high incidence of food allergies in children with ASD is that their gut microbiome, or bacteria, may be slightly altered in some way. But again, further research is warranted in this area. The most parents with ASD children can do is help them to learn to cope with their food limitations. The same idea applies to older individuals with ASD. Working with a doctor and other families to build the best eating strategy is extremely important. However, the best advice is to take things one moment at a time.
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