Objective: Recent evidence suggests that autistic children may have significant gastrointestinal symptoms. Although constipation occurs in 2% to 5% of healthy children, its clinical diagnosis is often difficult in children with behavioral disorders. We thus aimed to assess the prevalence of fecal loading in autistic children with gastrointestinal symptoms and to identify possible predictors of constipation.
Methods: We studied abdominal radiographs of 103 autistic children (87 boys) who were referred for gastroenterological assessment, in comparison with 29 control radiographs from children who were referred to the emergency department, most with abdominal pain. Radiographs were scored independently, in blinded manner, by 4 pediatric gastroenterologists and a radiologist. The severity of constipation was determined using a validated index. Details of stool habit, abdominal pain, dietary history, and laxative use were obtained from case notes.
Results: The incidence of constipation in the control subjects with abdominal pain was higher than reported for normal children. Despite this, moderate or severe constipation was more frequent in the autistic group than in the control subjects (36% vs 10%). Analysis of rectosigmoid loading showed more striking differences (54.4% of autistic children had moderate/severe loading or acquired megarectum compared with 24.1% of control subjects). Multivariate regression analysis showed consumption of milk to be the strongest predictor of constipation in the autistic group, whereas stool frequency, gluten consumption, soiling, and abdominal pain were not predictive of constipation.
Conclusions: Constipation is a frequent finding in children with gastrointestinal symptoms and autism, particularly in the rectosigmoid colon, often with acquired megarectum. The absence of any correlation between the clinical history and the degree of fecal impaction in autistic children confirms the importance of an abdominal radiograph in the assessment of their degree of constipation.