CHICAGO — An expert panel says there's no rigorous evidence that digestive problems are more common in children with autism compared with other children, or that special diets work.
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 and released today.
"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."
Some pediatricians' offices "can't handle those kids," Buie said, especially if children are in pain or discomfort because of bloating or stomach cramps. Pain can set off problem behavior, further complicating diagnosis, especially if the child has trouble communicating — as is the case for children with autism.
More than 25 experts met in Boston in 2008 to write the consensus report after reviewing medical research. The Autism Society and other autism groups funded the effort, but had no input. 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.
Diets have been promoted by actor Jenny McCarthy, whose bestseller Louder Than Words detailed her search for treatments for her autistic son.
Nearly 1 in 5 of children with autism is on a special diet, according to a project that tracks what treatments parents are trying. Most were on diets that eliminate gluten, found in many grains, or casein, a protein in milk, or both, according to the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.