Are Children with Autism at Risk for Other Physical or Behavioral Health Issues?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD): There are a variety of physical and behavioral conditions that frequently co-occur with ASD. Caregivers and practitioners interested in learning more about autism and co-occurring conditions can take advantage of aba autism training courses online.


Gastrointestinal Problems

When compared to their peers, children with ASD are nearly four times more likely to experience gastrointestinal disturbances. These disturbances include chronic constipation and/or diarrhea. Some experts propose that the toxins created by abnormal gut bacteria trigger or exacerbate the symptoms of autism in certain children.


Epilepsy/Seizure Disorders

Up to 40 percent of people who have autism also suffer with some type of seizure disorder; however, these disorders are seen more frequently in children who have autism spectrum disorders and cognitive deficits. The majority of children with ASD who have a seizure disorder will begin having seizures during early childhood or upon reaching adolescence; however, seizures can begin at any age. A child who has autism may experience several different kinds of seizures.


Types of Seizures

Petit Mal/Subclinical Seizures

Petit Mal seizures may only be apparent when they occur during an Electroencephalogram (EEG). These seizures are frequently referred to as absence seizures as they involve a short, sudden lapse of consciousness. A child who is actively experiencing a petit mal seizure may look as if he or she is staring off into space. These seizures generally last for just a few seconds and do not usually lead to any type of physical injury; however, it is unclear whether subclinical seizures affect a child’s cognition, language and behavior.

Grand Mal Seizures

Grand Mal seizures are also referred to as a generalized tonic-clonic seizures. These seizures are easily recognizable because the child loses consciousness and suffers violent muscle contractions. These seizures occur due to abnormal electrical activity within the child’s brain.


Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC)

TSC is a rare genetic disease that causes the growth of benign tumors in vital organs throughout the body. Organs commonly affected include the brain, heart, kidneys, eyes, skin and lungs. Tuberous sclerosis usually causes a variety of symptoms because it generally affects the autistic child’s central nervous system. Symptoms include developmental delay, seizures, skin abnormalities, behavioral issues and kidney disease.


Fragile X Syndrome (FXS)

Fragile X Syndrome is a genetic condition. FXS causes learning and behavioral challenges, intellectual disability as well as a variety of physical characteristics. Although Fragile X Syndrome can occur in males and females, males are affected more frequently than females are; furthermore, males with FXS generally experience characteristics with a greater severity than females with the condition do.


Characteristics of Males with FXS

The majority of males who have FXS demonstrate a substantial degree of intellectual disability (previously referred to as mental retardation). The range of learning disabilities a child with ASD experiences can vary from moderate to severe.

Physical features of males with FXS may include a long face, large ears, macroorchidism (large testicles, occurs following puberty) and soft skin.

Connective tissue problems may include flat feet, a high-arched palate, extremely flexible joints, chronic ear infections and double-jointed fingers.

Behavioral characteristics associated with Fragile X Syndrome include attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autistic behaviors, autism, hand flapping and/or biting, social anxiety, sensory disorders, poor eye contact and an increased risk of aggressive behavior.


Females with FXS

Many of the characteristics seen in males are also evident in females; however, females usually have a milder form of intellectual disability, physical features and behavioral characteristics than males do. Approximately one-third of the females with Fragile X Syndrome have a substantial learning disability, the other two-thirds have mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. This two-thirds may also experience issues related to their mental/emotional health as well as social and/or general anxiety disorders. Although rare, there are some females whose FMR1 Gene, which is the gene responsible for causing FXS, fully mutates; thus, eliminating any apparent signs of Fragile X Syndrome. These females usually remain undiagnosed until another family member is diagnosed with the syndrome.


Down Syndrome

Down Syndrome is the most common genetic disorder in the U.S., with one in 691 babies born with this genetic disorder. Estimates concerning the prevalence of ASD and Down syndrome among children and adults vary greatly, between 1 and 10 percent; however, Down syndrome expert George T. Capone, M.D., states that he believes 5 to 7 percent is an accurate estimate. This percentage is significantly higher than the 0.4 percent incidence of Down syndrome seen within the general population.


Attention Deficit Disorders

Autism, ADD and ADHD share common symptoms, which is why in the early stages of these disorders one condition may be mistaken for the other.

Symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Difficulty focusing on one task/Being easily distracted.
  • Quickly becoming bored while performing a task.
  • Talking continuously/Being boisterous.
  • Finding it difficult to remain still/ Jumping from one object to the next, running around the room.
  • Interrupting activities or conversations/ The inability to show concern for another person’s feelings for emotions.
  • Switching back and forth from one task to another.


Sleep Issues

Children who have autism spectrum disorders will most likely suffer with some form of disturbed sleep patterns and one point or another; however, the reason is unclear.

Sleep problems may include:

  • Sleep apnea.
  • Issues related to melatonin production –  the hormone responsible for regulating sleep patterns.
  • Sensory issues.
  • Repeatedly waking up during the night.
  • Difficulty falling asleep.
  • Sleeping too much (hypersomnia).
  • Social cueing issues – the child with autism does not connect the family going to bed with his or her own need to go to sleep.
  • Food sensitivities and allergies.
  • Gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD).


Sensory Processing Difficulties

Many autistic children respond unusually to sounds, sights, smells, tastes, movements and touch. These unusual responses occur because children with autism have difficulty processing and then integrating sensory information. Stimuli that seems normal to another can be unpleasant, painful or confusing to a child who has Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID).

Practitioners and caregivers of individuals with ASD should be aware of the conditions that frequently co-occur with autism. Autism awareness training can provide caregivers with more information about these conditions and how they relate to autism spectrum disorders.

Trina McMillin

Trina brings to Relias a wealth of knowledge and personal experience related to the medical field, dental issues, mental health, and physical therapy techniques. She has worked in various positions over her career which includes being a phlebotomist, laboratory assistant and medical transcriptionist.

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