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Autism and Associated Medical Conditions

January 24, 2012 18 comments

Guest post by epidemiologist Laura Schieve, Ph.D., of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In recent years, several reports have suggested that children with autism or other learning or behavioral developmental disabilities are more likely than typically developing children to have health conditions such as respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses.

However the studies behind these reports were often small and showed inconsistent findings. Some of their methods had limitations. One of the biggest problems was that they didn’t adequately compare children with different types of developmental disabilities. Because of these limitations, many public health professionals and healthcare providers have been skeptical about whether children with autism or other behavioral developmental disabilities truly faced an elevated risk of other medical problems.

My colleagues and I wanted to help paint a clearer picture of this important public health issue. Our study, recently published in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities, compared the medical conditions and healthcare needs of children with developmental disabilities with those of children without developmental disabilities. We also compared children with autism with those who had other developmental disabilities.

We assessed children included in the National Health Interview Surveys from 2006 to 2010. Households throughout the United States are randomly selected to participate in this annual survey. In households with children, one child is randomly selected to participate. Each child’s parent or other primary caregiver is interviewed in-person about the child’s health and development. Interviewers asked whether a doctor or other healthcare provider has ever told them the child has certain conditions including autism and several other developmental disabilities. We also ask if the child has a health condition such as asthma or has experienced other symptoms such as frequent diarrhea or colitis in the past year.

We included more than 41,000 children aged 3 to 17 years in the study. Of these, 5,469 had one or more of the following five developmental disabilities:  autism, intellectual disability, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability or other developmental delay.

As a group, these children had higher than expected rates of all of the medical conditions we studied. More specifically, they were:

* 1.8 times more likely than children without developmental disabilities to have ever had an asthma diagnosis,

* 1.6 times more likely to have had eczema or a skin allergy during the past year,

* 1.8 times more likely to have had a food allergy during the past year,

* 2.1 times more likely to have had three or more ear infections during the past year,

* 2.2 times more likely to have had frequent severe headaches or migraines during the past year, and

* 3.5 times more likely to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year.

These increased rates of health conditions held true even for children diagnosed with ADHD or learning disability, but not diagnosed with autism or intellectual disability.

However, one finding stood out in particular when we compared the developmental disability groups to each other: Children with autism were twice as likely as children with ADHD, learning disability or other developmental delay to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year. They were seven times more likely to have experienced these gastrointestinal problems than were children without any developmental disability.

This detailed assessment demonstrates that children with autism or many other types of developmental disabilities do, in fact, face an increased risk for many common health conditions. This, in turn, provides evidence that children with developmental disabilities require increased health services and specialist services, both for their core functional deficits and for health problems beyond their core developmental disabilities.

Reference: Schieve LA, Gonzales V, Boulet SL, Visser SN, Rice CE, Van Naarden-Braun K, Boyle CA. Concurrent medical conditions and health care use and needs among children with learning and behavioral developmental disabilities, National Health Interview Survey, 2006-2010.  Res Dev Disabil. 2011;33:467-76.

Read more autism research news and perspective on the science page. Explore the studies Autism Speaks is funding with our Grant Search. And thanks for making this research possible! 

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