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Panel finds no digestion problem specific to autism

Associated Press / January 4, 2010

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CHICAGO - An advisory panel says there is no rigorous evidence that digestive problems are more common in children with autism compared with other children or that special diets work, contrary to claims by celebrities and vaccine opponents.

Painful digestive troubles 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.

Autism is a spectrum of disorders affecting a person’s ability to interact with others. Children with autism may make poor eye contact or exhibit repetitive movements such as rocking or hand-flapping. About 1 in 110 US children have autism, according to a recent government estimate.

More than 25 researchers met in Boston in 2008 to write the report after reviewing research. The Autism Society and other autism groups funded the effort.

The report refutes the controversial idea that there is 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.

The new report says the existence of autistic enterocolitis “has not been established.’’ Buie said researchers and doctors have avoided digestive issues in autism because of their connection with Wakefield’s research, which set off a backlash against vaccines.