By Carla K. Johnson
An expert panel says there's no rigorous evidence that digestive problems are more common in children with autism compared to other children – or that special diets work, contrary to claims by celebrities and vaccine naysayers.
Painful digestive problems can trigger problem behavior in children with autism and should be treated medically, according to the panel's report published in the January issue of Pediatrics.
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“There are a lot of barriers to medical care to children with autism,” said the report's lead author, Dr. Timothy Buie of Harvard Medical School. “They can be destructive and unruly in the office, or they can't sit still. The nature of their condition often prevents them from getting standard medical care.”
Autism is a spectrum of disorders affecting a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. About one in 110 U.S. children has autism, according to a recent government estimate.
More than 25 experts met in Boston in 2008 to write the consensus report after reviewing medical research. The report refutes the controversial idea that there's a digestive problem specific to autism, called “leaky gut” or “autistic enterocolitis.” The hypothesis was first floated in 1998 in a now-discredited study by British physician Dr. Andrew Wakefield.
His paper tied a particular type of autism and bowel disease to the measles vaccine.
Wakefield's disputed research set off a backlash against vaccines that continues to this day.
The new report calls for research into the prevalence of digestive problems and whether special diets might help some children.
For now, the report states, available information doesn't support special diets for autism.
Diets have been promoted by some, including actress Jenny McCarthy, whose best-seller “Louder Than Words” detailed her search for treatments for her autistic son.
Nearly one in five children with autism is on a special diet, according to a project that tracks parents' treatments. Most of those eliminated gluten (found in many grain) or casein (a protein in milk) or both, according to the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
The new report advises doctors to watch for nutritional deficiencies in autistic patients. It recommends a nutritionist get involved if a patient is on a special diet or only eats certain foods.