Lack of Attention to Physical Problems in Autism
Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
I am often surprised and upset when I hear that a rather serious physical problem of an autistic child is dismissed as â€˜just another symptom of the disorder,â€™ when the problem should be addressed directly. A commonly reported problem is insensitivity to pain. Many, not all, autistic children lack perception to pain. They may fall and then bruise or cut themselves quite seriously, but they exhibit little or no reaction to the injury. I sometimes hear of an autistic child who will place his/her hand on a hot stove, suffer a severe burn, and show no reaction.
When this type of problem is discussed with a pediatrician or another health care provider, in many cases, very little is done to determine what may be happening. The remark commonly given is: â€œAutistic individuals tend to have a high threshold for pain.â€ HOWEVER, if this child did not have autism and exhibited insensitivity to normal levels of pain, then this problem would likely be treated as serious; and there would be much concern about treating the problem.
[Insensitivity to pain may be due to elevated levels of endorphins, endogenous opiate-like substances, in the body. One possible source of these endorphins may be from eating food items containing gluten or casein. If the person has a â€˜leaky gutâ€™ (i.e., small holes in the intestinal tract), these proteins may slip through the holes and cause a chemical reaction. The chemical configuration of gluten and casein is similar to endorphins.]
Another problem often seen in autistic individuals is chronic diarrhea. Again, many autistic children suffer from this problem. Chronic diarrhea is very uncomfortable, and the child may not be absorbing all of the nutrients from his/her foods. This can affect brain development and, consequently, cognitive processing and behavior. Again, many health care providers simply state that chronic diarrhea is common in autism; and this problem should not be of any concern. [This problem may be due to some type of intestinal tract problem, such as â€˜leaky gut,â€™ yeast overgrowth, low levels of secretin, some type of infection, presence of a virus and/or toxins, such as metals.]
It is quite obvious from the research literature that many autistic individuals have physical health problems. Some physicians are aware of these problems, but many are not. In fact, it is usually the parents who, through their perseverance, learn the best ways to treat their childrenâ€™s physical problems. Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!), a coalition of clinicians and researchers sponsored by the Autism Research Institute in San Diego, developed a report on understanding and treating many physical symptoms associated with autism. The report is entitled: â€˜Biomedical Assessment Options for Children with Autism and Related Problems.â€™ A copy of the protocol can be purchased from the Autism Research Institute for $25 (address: 4182 Adams Ave., San Diego, CA 92116).