ADHD News & Research

Study: GI Problems Linked to Underlying Anxiety in Youth with ASD

Gastrointestinal problems — including stomach pain, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea — were correlated with internalizing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, including withdrawn and anxious behavior, in a recent study.

May 10, 2022

Internalizing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including withdrawn and anxious behavior, were correlated with gastrointestinal (GI) problems like stomach pain and constipation, according to a new study of 621 children and adolescents under the age of 18 recently published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 1

The exploratory, cross-sectional study analyzed parent reports of internalizing symptoms and GI problems — such as constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pain — in study participants with an ASD diagnosis who were enrolled in the Autism Care Network registry at the University of Mis­souri Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Most participants were male and Caucasian (81%).

Less than half of the study participants (43%) had GI problems. Of those who did, 55% experienced one GI problem. Only 18 youth took medication specifically for GI problems, and this was almost exclusively an over-the-counter polyethylene glycol (MiraLAX®) option.

“GI medications may pro­vide temporary relief for some GI problems, but GI symptoms may persist if an underlying anxiety disorder is left untreated,” the authors wrote. “Similarly, GI problems may lead to anxiety or depression, and clini­cians and caregivers should be mindful to treat GI problems directly and not expect that all GI problems will resolve in response to clinical therapy.”

This is the first study to examine the relationship between internalizing symptoms and GI prob­lems in youth with ASD, to the authors’ knowledge. They recommended that longi­tudinal research is needed to better identify individuals with ASD at risk for anxiety-related GI problems or GI-related anxiety problems.

“A better understanding of the development and pro­gression of GI problems would offer improved recommen­dations for both prevention and treatment in ASD,” they wrote.

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1Dovgan, K., Gynegrowski, K. & Ferguson, B.J. (2022). Bidirectional relationship between internalizing symptoms and gastrointestinal problems in youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder.Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders.//