Many parents of children with autism report gastrointestinal (GI) pain in their child, but the question remains whether the association between autism and bowel disease truly exists.
An editorial published Thursday in the British Medical Journal examined the continued belief by many of a possible connection between the developmental disorder and the chronic inflammatory bowel disease, that was first dubbed "autistic enterocolitis" by British physician Dr. Andrew Wakefield.
But beyond Wakefield's account, the evidence of any connection between bowel disease and autism is slim, the editorial stated.
The hypothesis was first introduced in 1998 in a roundly discredited study by Wakefield. His paper, published in The Lancet, tied autism and bowel disease to the measles vaccine.
Critics accused Wakefield's paper of using fabricated data to find a link between receipt of the MMR vaccine and the onset of what he described as "behavioral symptoms." And although the paper was retracted from the journal, the belief remained among some doctors and many parents.
According to Dr. Stefani Hines, a development-behavioral pediatrician at William Beaumont children's hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., the belief is so deep rooted in the autism community that many parents ask her if alleviating their child's stomach pains will treat their autism.
A panel report published in the January issue of Pediatrics found no evidence that digestive problems are more common in children with autism compared to other children, or that special diets -- including the popular gluten-free casein-free diet -- work.
But according to some experts, for a child who has significant behavioral and communication disabilities, it may be difficult for the child to communicate GI issues. And, experts said, the persisting pain from gastrointestinal problems can trigger behavior problems in children with autism.
However, regardless of the evidence, popular belief resides among many experts and parents alike that eliminating certain foods that could cause gastrointestinal problems may help to reduce behavioral problems, a common symptom found in autistic children.
Diets have been promoted by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, whose best-selling book, "Louder Than Words," detailed her use of diets as one method to treat her autistic son. And many autism communities have touted the purported benefits of specialized diets for their children.
Diane Marshall, 42, of Montclair, N.J. put her son David, 13, on a gluten-free casein-free (GFCF) diet for a year when he was 4-years-old. Marshall said that she read success stories from some mothers who tried the diet for their autistic children. At the time, David suffered with severe eczema and a runny stool, she said.
"We definitely thought the diet would help the autism," said Marshall. "We thought [the diet would] get rid of the G.I. issues and also get rid of the autism symptoms."
While the GI issues subsided, Marshall said she did not attribute the end of her son's stomach problems to the diet. And, she said the diet did not help her son overcome autism.
"There are a lot of things out there that are based on evidence, like teaching methods, that will help our kids a lot, but not diets," said Marshall.