6 Health Conditions Common in Autism

Autism is primarily a disorder of communication and behavior, but it often is accompanied by certain physical illnesses and mental health disorders. It is not known whether autism spectrum disorder (ASD) causes these symptoms or is just associated with them. In some cases, the behavioral symptoms of autism can be exacerbated by the other illnesses.

An autistic child receiving ABA.
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1

Gastrointestinal Problems

Children with autism are eight times more likely than other children to have stomach and bowel issues, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and painful defecation. Furthermore, gastrointestinal (GI) problems have been linked with an increase in behavioral symptoms associated with autism.

Some researchers believe the relationship between autism and GI problems is a clue to the cause of autism. Others simply note that many kids with autism have stomach troubles.

Regardless, if you have an autistic child who also has digestive issues it’s important to treat their symptoms and so make sure they eat healthy, nutritious meals and snacks. Whether changes in diet and nutrition can really help cure autism is still debatable. Treating GI problems, however, may help make it easier for children to be more receptive to school, therapy, and social interaction.​

2

Seizures

Nearly one in four children with ASD has a seizure disorder such as epilepsy.Seizures can range from brief staring spells to full-scale convulsions or blackouts. An electroencephalogram can diagnose the cause of a seizure disorder by measuring changes in brainwaves.

Anticonvulsant medications such as Tegretol (carbamazepine), Lamictal (lamotrigine), Topamax (topiramate), and Depakote (valproic acid) are effective at controlling seizures although some can have serious side effects.

3

Sleep Problems

Research shows children and teens with autism may experience sleep problems—especially insomnia—at a rate of 40% to 80% higher than those without the disorder. Some have a tough time falling asleep; others wake frequently during the night.

Lack of sleep can make daytime symptoms of autism worse. Melatonin, a hormone-based supplement, can help people with autism fall asleep. It's not clear, though, that it makes much of a difference in helping them stay asleep through the night.

4

Anxiety and Depression

Many people with ASD have clinical depression and/or anxiety, especially those with level one ASD (high-functioning individuals who formerly may have been identified as having Asperger's syndrome).This may be because they're likely to be aware they're different from other people and of being ostracized.

However, some experts believe mood disorders in conjunction with autism may be caused by physical differences in the autistic brain. Mood disorders can be treated with medication, cognitive psychology, and behavior management.

Anxiety is estimated to affect 11% to 42% of people with autism, while depression is thought to affect 7% of children and 26% of adults with the disorder. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is another mental health disorder that is more common among people with autism than it is in the general population. Some autism symptoms such as repetitive behaviors and extremely narrow interests, also are characteristic of OCD, so it can be hard to distinguish between the two disorders.

5

Serious Mental Illness

It is not unusual for a person with autism to also have a mental health diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It can also be tough to distinguish between mood disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and certain autistic behaviors.

If you suspect a loved one with autism is also suffering from mental illness, it's critically important to find a mental health expert with solid experience treating people on the autism spectrum.

6

Attention Deficits and Behavior Issues

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), aggressive behavior, and trouble focusing are not included in the diagnostic criteria for autism, but they are common in children with ASD; many children with autism also have ADD or ADHD diagnoses.

Sometimes, medications that help with ADHD, such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) can children with autism to behave appropriately and to be able to focus. More likely to be helpful are changes in the environment that lessen sensory distractions and external irritants and support focus.

Between 30% and 61% of children with autism also have symptoms of ADHD, which affects just 6% to 7% of the general population.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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