My own opinion of the relationship between autism and gut problems (based on research and extensive reading, rather than a “gut-feeling”), is that the two issues need to be approached separately: More specifically, that there is nothing inherent in autism that means a child has a gut problem, but that plenty of children with autism do clearly have gut problems that need to be managed. And importantly, that for those autistic children who do suffer from gut problems, addressing those problems can lessen the severity of the autism symptoms. This lessening of the severity of the symptoms though does not mean the autism is being fixed, it is a natural consequence of increasing the “comfort” of the child: If a child already has significant sensory, communication and behavioural issues, pain and general un-well-being is only going to make them worse.
Keeping the issues of gut and autism separate, is further complicated by the often restrictive and poor diets that our children have, due to sensory (and sometimes fine motor) problems. Fixing dietary deficiencies can also improve behaviour and reduce discomfort, in ways that will can show as improvements in the symptoms of autism.
With all of these “maybes” and links, it’s easy to think that – as a parent – you might as well give a special diets a go. What’s the harm? I’ve written before about the harm that occurs from taking part in a GF/CF diet – which can be physical as well as financial – so I won’t re-hash that here. (Of course, if you have proof that your child is sensitive to gluten and casein, those harms are more than worth the costs.) More generally, there is a harm in thinking that autism as a condition is caused by – and be cured by – addressing gut problems. Not least of all because it can detract a parent’s time and resources from other treatments and therapies that have a far more positive and reliable impact on the symptoms of autism.
Of course all of this debate gets muddied by Wakefield waters. Many people naturally associate claims about a gut connection, with Wakefield’s claims. Wakefield’s claims are not generally taken seriously anymore, and so associated claims about the gut are also often dismissed (which is just another example of the damage done by Wakefield). It’s important to consider new hypotheses about any relationship between the gut and autism, independent of the specific one suggested by Wakefield (which had been established in labs that were turning out false positives, and couldn’t be replicated in independent labs).
I am particularly aware of these issues because my husband – my autistic son’s father – has Crohn’s disease (which was Wakefield’s passion prior to autism). Crohn’s can be inherited, and can be a particularly severe gut problem. We have no evidence that our son has inherited Crohn’s from his father. We do know that our son doesn’t have any food sensitivities or allergies because we’ve had him tested. I am very aware of my son’s bowel motions since he still needs help in the bathroom. I monitor him, and the science about all this, as best I can.
So I was particularly interested to see this today: “Supporting Real Autism Science” by Todd Drezner, at Huffington Post. I strongly suggest popping over for a read. I equally suggest avoiding the comments since they’re going to turn into a “we hate Wakefield” “we love Wakefield” fest, which is not the heart of the issue, and should not be the heart of the issue: As Todd points out, it is a distraction. (It makes you wonder if some of the commenters even got the point and importance of the post.) I do hope that the messages and calm reason of Todd’s post, help others refocus the debate; away from personalities and improbable theories, and back towards new hypotheses and science.