In my experience, I’ve found some medical professionals shrug off gastrointestinal complaints in autistic kids because “it’s just a part of autism.” I want to offer you a new perspective on these GI issues, especially diarrhea in autistic children.
Persistent diarrhea can be dangerous so it’s important to understand what’s causing it and learn how to address it.
The Dangers of Diarrhea
You shouldn’t be overly concerned if your child has intermittent bouts of loose stool. However, frequent and persistent diarrhea that is severe or long-lasting poses some serious threats to your child’s health.
- Dehydration: Dehydration is one of the most serious concerns associated with diarrhea. Your child is getting rid of a lot of fluid through their stool. If that fluid isn’t replaced your child may become dehydrated.
Know the signs of dehydration.
- Malnutrition: When your child has diarrhea the food is moving too fast through their intestines. When this happens, the intestines don’t have enough time to extract nutrients from the food your child is eating. This can lead to malnutrition.
Know the signs of malnutrition.
- Skin Breakdown: Skin breakdown can occur due to over wiping or poor wiping. Make sure your child’s bottom is clean and dry. Don’t hesitate to use an ointment to prevent or treat any rashes that may occur.
Find a product that soothes and protects.
- Stool-holding: If your child is experiencing uncomfortable or painful diarrhea, they may begin holding their stool to avoid the unpleasantness. Stool-holding can lead to severe constipation which can result in more diarrhea.
Ideally, your child should have one to three bowel movements per day. Their stool should be soft and easy to pass with no food particles.
Understand the cycle of severe constipation.
Why Does Your Child Have Diarrhea?
Whenever your child has diarrhea it’s an indication that something isn’t right. It’s always worthwhile to try and figure out the root cause of their diarrhea. Here are four common causes of diarrhea in autistic children:
- Food sensitivities: Food sensitivities are a common cause of diarrhea in children with autism. Studies have shown that autistic children are more likely to have food sensitivities than their neurotypical peers.
- Imbalance of gut microbiome: A microbiome imbalance can be caused by bacteria or yeast overgrowth or by food sensitivities.
- Constipation: Although it seems counterintuitive, constipation can lead to diarrhea.
- Infection: An infection caused by contaminated food or international travel can also cause diarrhea. Infections tend to cause severe, intense, and painful diarrhea. If not handled properly, severe diarrhea can be very dangerous.
How to Treat Your Child’s Diarrhea
Your child’s particular situation will determine your course of action. Here are five simple and safe treatments for diarrhea in autistic children:
- Stool testing: Stool testing is a simple, non-invasive process that can tell you a lot about your child’s health. Stool testing gives you information about levels of inflammation, levels of probiotics, levels of bad bacteria, and information about how your child is digesting their food. Additionally, stool testing can identify inflammation and let you know if they’re breaking down fats and proteins appropriately and absorbing the nutrients. A stool test can let you know where to start treatment.
- Provide hydration: When a child is suffering from diarrhea it’s not uncommon for them to refuse to drink water. You can add a touch of Himalayan pink salt to their water for additional hydration or try freezing plain water into a popsicle. You can also use healthy juice or coconut water to make a tasty hydrating popsicle.
While some sugar is necessary to support rehydration, I usually suggest steering clear of sports drinks due to their high sugar levels.
- Provide foods high in fiber and water: Foods like watermelon contain a lot of water and are a great choice if your child is resistant to drinking fluids.
Foods that are easy on the stomach like bananas or applesauce are also great choices. When your child isn’t feeling well, you might need to get creative to make sure they’re getting the nutrients they need. Simple tricks like freezing a banana on a stick may be enough motivation to get them to eat.
Just make sure you’re offering them fresh foods that aren’t super processed. If they have diarrhea, their GI system is already struggling and highly processed foods can cause additional gut inflammation.
- Don’t push foods too hard: A decreased appetite is normal during an illness. For the first few days of an illness, it’s ok to follow your child’s lead when it comes to eating. Let them eat easily digested water and nutrient foods when they’re hungry and allow them to skip eating if they’re feeling unwell.
If they refuse to eat beyond a few days you need to take action to make sure your child is getting the appropriate amount of calories and macronutrients.
- Probiotics: Diarrhea or constipation can be indicators of an imbalance in the gut microbiome. A spore- or soil-based probiotic can be very helpful in correcting this. Balancing things out in the gut will help the intestines start functioning well again.
Finding the root cause over time is key to helping our children with diarrhea. Become an investigator and figure out how to get the root cause of the problem and then take the necessary action to solve it.
Be gentle with yourself. You’re doing a great job.
I hope this information has been helpful to you as part of creating Your Autism Game Plan.
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