Harvard Mental Health Letter

Autism spectrum disorders and the gut

Consensus recommendations for evaluation and treatment.

Researchers have long disagreed about whether gastrointestinal problems may underlie some symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). This has not stopped some researchers and celebrities from promoting theories and special "autism diets" with no scientific support. Yet these unfounded recommendations might appeal to grieving and vulnerable parents who are heartbroken about a child's sudden developmental regression.

In an effort to provide guidance for clinicians, parents, and patients, a multidisciplinary panel has published the first consensus report about gastrointestinal problems in individuals with ASDs. A companion report provides detailed advice about diagnosing and treating the most common problems.

Recognizing distress

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) describes five ASDs within the category of pervasive developmental disorders: autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, Rett's disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. All ASDs cause some degree of impairment in the ability to communicate or interact with other people. Patients may also engage in ritualistic or repetitive behaviors like constantly tapping their fingers.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »