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GI Symptoms Often Tied to Behavioral Problems in Preschoolers

New research finds that common gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation and bloating are linked to troubled sleep, self-harm and physical complaints in preschool children.

University of California – Davis investigators also said GI symptoms are much more common and potentially disruptive in young kids with autism.

“Clinicians and parents need to be aware of the high occurrence of GI problems in kids with autism,” said Dr. Bibiana Restrepo, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and first author on the study. “This study highlights the link between GI symptoms and some problematic behaviors we see in preschool-aged children.”

The study appears in the journal Autism Research.

As a background, gastrointestinal concerns are frequently reported by parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers from the UC Davis MIND Institute evaluated the presence of GI symptoms in preschool-aged children with and without autism.

The study included 255 (184 males/71 females) children with ASD between two and 3.5 years of age and 129 (75 males/54 females) typically developing children in the same age group. Pediatricians specializing in autism interviewed caregivers during the children’s medical evaluation.

They asked the parents how often their children experienced GI symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, painful stooling, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, blood in stool and blood in vomit.

The researchers grouped children in two categories: those who experienced one or more GI symptom and those who never or rarely had GI symptoms in the last three months. They compared the children in the two groups on measures of developmental, behavioral and adaptive functioning.

The study found that preschool-aged children with ASD were 2.7 times more likely to experience GI symptoms than their typically developing peers. In fact, almost 50 percent of children with ASD reported frequent GI symptoms compared to 18 percent of children with typical development. Around 30 percent of the children with ASD experienced multiple GI symptoms.

Investigators determined that multiple GI symptoms were associated with increased challenges with sleep and attention, as well as problem behaviors related to self-harm, aggression and restricted or repetitive behavior. These behaviors were found among autistic and typically developing children. The severity of these problems was higher in children with autism.

“Problem behaviors may be an expression of GI discomfort in preschool-aged children,” said Dr. Christine Wu Nordahl, associate professor at UC Davis MIND Institute and the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

“GI symptoms are often treatable, so it is important to recognize how common they are in children with autism. Treating their GI symptoms could potentially provide some relief to the kids and their parents.”

The study found no link between GI symptoms and the children’s cognitive development or gender. GI symptoms were equally common in male and female preschool children.

Source: UC – Davis

GI Symptoms Often Tied to Behavioral Problems in Preschoolers

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). GI Symptoms Often Tied to Behavioral Problems in Preschoolers. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/08/11/gi-symptoms-often-tied-to-behavioral-problems-in-preschoolers/158781.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Aug 2020 (Originally: 11 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Aug 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.