Anemia in autistic kids can have a lot of different causes and effects and, likewise, the right treatment depends on the accurate identification of the underlying cause of the anemia.
Complicating things even further is the fact that anemia can be challenging to identify without specifically testing for it. Luckily, in the U.S. and Canada, children between 9 and 12 months of age are routinely screened for iron deficiency anemia. However, if a child develops anemia after this screening, or has anemia for a long time, the body will adapt and it may not be immediately noticeable.
It’s important to know what to look for and even more important to understand that you should not provide your child with an iron supplement until your medical provider or functional medicine practitioner has identified the root cause of the anemia.
Common Symptoms of Anemia in Autistic Children
Most symptoms of anemia are the results of inadequate oxygen in the blood cells.
- Pallor: Pallor, or paleness, of the under eye mucus membrane and tongue can be an indicator of anemia.
- Fatigue: With anemia, you may notice your child is exceptionally tired during the day or doesn’t have the stamina to keep up with their peers.
- Pica: Pica, an eating disorder in which people routinely eat non-food items, is often the result of an iron deficiency. The body is craving iron and seeks it out in the form of non-food items.
- Racing heartbeat: Individuals with anemia have fewer or smaller red blood cells, or less oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in each red blood cell. As a result, the heart has to pump faster to circulate enough oxygen throughout the body. This can be difficult to identify at home but should be investigated by your practitioner.
Common Causes of Anemia in Austic Children
Anemia can be caused by a variety of factors.
- Iron deficiency: An iron deficiency may be the result of a lack of nutritional iron intake, or the result of malabsorption of iron or blood loss. When and iron deficiency is due to blood loss, it is likely happening through the gastrointestinal tract. This will result in black stools in the case of an upper GI bleed, or red streaks in the stool as a result of a lower GI.
It can be challenging to distinguish between a GI bleed and hemorrhoids or a fissure so it’s important to see a specialist immediately if you suspect a GI bleed.
Treatment for iron deficiency anemia can get complicated for autistic kids. Iron supplementation can increase constipation which is already an issue for many autistic kids.
Your provider should be able to suggest a gentle supplement like elemental or chelated iron, or food based iron so as not to worsen your child’s existing GI issues.
Remember, do not give iron supplements without verification from your provider.
- Nutritional insufficiency: As we’ve discussed, an iron deficiency can cause anemia. However, a vitamin B12 or folate deficiency can have the same effect.
Foods like beef, lamb, beans, chickpeas, prunes, and sunflower seed butter are all simple ways to address this issue. Soy and calcium can inhibit the absorption of iron in our system, so avoid these supplements and foods if you’re concerned about an iron deficiency.
- Vitamin B12 and folate deficiency: Pernicious anemia occurs when the body doesn’t have or is unable to use vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 and folate are important in methylation, which is the way by which we produce new cells including blood cells. If your child is deficient in vitamin B12 or folate it can result in anemia.
- Picky eating and dietary choices: Individuals who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet are more likely to be vitamin b12 and folate deficient. While your child may not intentionally be a vegan or vegetarian, picky eating may lead to similar dietary patterns.
It’s important to consider your child’s eating habits and determine whether or not they’re getting enough iron in their diet. Additionally, you should investigate whether or not their intestinal system is in a healthy enough state to absorb these nutrients.
It’s possible that an inflamed gut, a yeast overgrowth, or diarrhea is affecting your child’s nutrient intake and absorption. Gut health is one of the foundations that need to be addressed if we’re hoping to make progress with our autistic kids.
- Lead toxicity: Lead toxicity can cause anemia. We like to think our kids are safe and lead levels are fine, but this may still be a concern. If lead levels are high that may mean iron, zinc, and copper levels are low because all of those minerals are competing for binding sites. One preventative measure is to make sure your child has adequate iron, calcium and vitamin C.
When Sophie was diagnosed with autism at three years old, I felt guilty, overwhelmed, and desperate to help her. I was filled with self-doubt even as a medical professional and functional medicine specialist.
I knew there was something beside ABA, speech, occupational, and physical therapy and wasn’t ready for medicine. This is why I came up with Your Autism Game Plan, because I remember looking and not being able to find any information about where to start, what to do next, and what would be important for later.
I’ve come up with the Essential 5 to solve this problem. I’ve highlighted the five areas of functional medicine that you really want to work on. When used in conjunction with traditional therapies, a biomedical approach can accelerate your child’s progress.
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