Autism spectrum disorder affects 1 in 68 children in the U.S. Challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communications are some of the issues people with autism may experience. But what many don’t know is that those with autism often struggle with an array of other health problems, too.
A new report from the advocacy group Autism Speaks looks at how and why the neurodevelopmental disorder may be linked to other health problems, including difficulty sleeping, digestive distress, epilepsy, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating challenges, depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety.
“We now know, beyond doubt, that for many people, autism is a whole-body disorder,” the report authors say in their introduction, and the issues can extend throughout a lifetime.
More than half of people with autism have trouble sleeping, according to the report. Thirteen-year-old Colby Rosenblatt is one of them; he has difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
“It has gotten progressively worse and couldn’t get him to bed because he was scared to be alone,” Colby’s mom, Stephanie Udell-Rosenblatt, told CBS News’ Weijia Jiang.
Conditions such as epilepsy and gastrointestinal problems also go hand in hand with autism in many cases, according to the report, “Autism and Health: Advances in Understanding and Treating the Health Conditions that Frequently Accompany Autism.”
Epilepsy, for example, affects 20 to 33 percent of people with autism, compared to an estimated one to two percent of the general population.
Children with autism are nearly eight times more likely to suffer from one or more chronic gastrointestinal problems — abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, constipation and painful stools — compared to typically developing children.
“Co-occurring conditions may be due to just sort of the interplay of autism and the environment. Others are definitely related though to biology,” Dr. Thomas Frazier, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, told CBS News.
While children with autism are much more likely to have chronic gastrointestinal issues, the report reveals there is little evidence that special diets, such as going gluten-free, will help with symptoms.
Mental health issues such as anxiety and ADHD are also common in children with autism, Frazier said.
“We have to really think about them not as just having autism, but autism and whatever else is going on for them. Addressing those other things can make a huge difference in their lives,” Frazier said.
For kids like Colby, doctors recommend exercise, limiting screen time and setting a good bedtime routine.
Colby’s room is cheerful, with painted blue walls decorated with a poster of a world map, and pictures, stuffed animals and photographs on the bureau. A blue tent covers his bed. His parents say the sleep tent helps.
“On a night where Colby gets great sleep, he’s happy. He feels like he’s in control of his body and his emotions,” said his mom.
They also use white noise and nature recordings to put him at ease.
The new Autism Speaks report also stressed that “autism itself is not a cause of premature mortality.” It’s just linked to many other health problems, most of which are treatable or preventable.
The report is the first in a series of in-depth annual reports on special topics related to autism.