Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have co-occurring conditions, such as epilepsy, immune disorders, gastrointestinal problems and developmental delays.
In a new study, published in the journal Autism Research, a team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute demonstrates that creating a classification system for ASD based on co-occurring conditions could provide useful insights into the underlying mechanics of ASD and these conditions.
The researchers analyzed administrative claims data for thousands of children with and without ASD over five years. Their results suggest the presence of three subgroups within the 3,278 children with autism.
The first group, around 25 percent of the children, exhibit high rates of co-occurring condition diagnoses. The second cluster, also about 25 percent of the children, had high rates of developmental delays, specifically. The third group, which included the remaining 50 percent, had the lowest rates of co-occurring condition diagnoses — only slightly higher than the group of 279,693 children without ASD.
These findings may lay the groundwork for creating a sub-classification system within ASD.
“This could potentially be a blueprint for looking at the subtypes of autism. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do it but I think it’s an important step in that direction,” said study leader Dr. Juergen Hahn, a professor of biomedical engineering.
The analysis also revealed that certain conditions like gastrointestinal and immune disorders, and seizure and sleep disorders often co-occurred at similar points in time in children with autism. Hahn said those findings could prompt further investigation by other researchers.
“Once you know which conditions happen together, then you can look at if there is some commonality among the underlying mechanisms. Maybe you find that if there’s intersection of the mechanism that causes one problem or the other,” Hahn said.
This study built upon earlier research published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, where the Rensselaer researchers looked at gastrointestinal problems and antibiotic use in both children with autism and without.
Those findings revealed that gastrointestinal symptoms are twice as common in children with autism, but that antibiotics don’t increase those symptoms in children with ASD any more than they do in children without.
“I think that’s important because it’s basically a question a lot of parents have when they go to the doctor,” Hahn said.
Based on their most recent studies, the team was able to map over time when children were diagnosed with co-occurring conditions. Those timelines show that, at certain ages, diagnosis rates diverge between children with autism and children without.
These maps may help doctors better determine at what age they should start screening children with autism for various co-occurring conditions. But even more importantly, these findings raise more questions to be explored, said Hahn.
“That tells you that something must be causing this, and so we have to figure out what’s going on in the body at this point in time that might either cause or contribute to these divergences somehow,” he said.
Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute