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What Does Autism Do to Your Body?

While autism primarily affects a person's behavior and social skills, it can also impact their physical health in a number of ways.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
December 16, 2023
11
min read

Sensory Overload

One of the most common physical symptoms experienced by people with autism is sensory overload. This occurs when a person's senses are overwhelmed by stimuli such as noise, light, touch, taste, or smell. For someone with autism, sensory overload can be particularly distressing, leading to feelings of anxiety, panic, and even physical pain.

The impact of sensory overload on a person with autism can be significant. It can affect their ability to function in daily life, make social connections, and learn new skills. For example, a person with autism may be unable to tolerate the sound of a vacuum cleaner, leading to a heightened sense of anxiety and discomfort. Similarly, they may be unable to tolerate certain textures of fabric, leading to physical discomfort and agitation.

It's important to note that sensory processing difficulties are unique to each individual with autism. Some people may be oversensitive to certain stimuli, while others may be undersensitive. Additionally, some people with autism may experience sensory seeking behaviors, where they actively seek out certain types of sensory input.

To support individuals with autism, it's important to be aware of their specific sensory needs and preferences. By creating a sensory-friendly environment and providing accommodations such as noise-cancelling headphones or weighted blankets, we can help reduce sensory overload and promote a sense of comfort and calm.

Gastrointestinal Issues

Research has shown that people with autism are more likely to suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) issues than the general population. This is a matter of concern as GI issues can significantly impact a person's quality of life. These GI issues can include constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

While the exact cause of these GI issues is unknown, some experts believe that they may be related to abnormalities in the gut microbiome – the collection of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. Studies have shown that people with autism have a different composition of gut bacteria than the general population. This difference may contribute to the GI issues that are commonly experienced by people with autism.

Other researchers suggest that the issues may be related to food sensitivities or intolerances. Some people with autism may have difficulty digesting certain foods, such as gluten or dairy. Eliminating these foods from their diet may help alleviate their symptoms.

It is important to note that while there is a link between autism and GI issues, not all people with autism will experience these issues. However, if you or someone you know with autism is experiencing GI issues, it is important to speak to a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and explore treatment options.

Free Children Playing With Fingers on Green Carpet Stock Photo

Sleep Disorders

People with autism are also more likely to experience sleep disorders than the general population. This can include difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early. A recent study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that up to 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience difficulty sleeping.

Sleep disorders can have a significant impact on a person's overall health and well-being. They can lead to feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. In children with autism, sleep disturbances can also impact their behavior and ability to learn. It is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of the potential for sleep disorders in individuals with autism, and to seek medical attention if necessary.

There are several strategies that can help individuals with autism improve their sleep. These include establishing a consistent bedtime routine, limiting screen time before bed, and creating a calming sleep environment. In some cases, medication may also be necessary to address sleep disturbances.

Motor Coordination Issues

Some people with autism may also experience motor coordination issues, which can significantly impact their ability to perform everyday tasks. This can include difficulties with fine motor skills, such as holding a pen or tying shoelaces, or gross motor skills, such as running or jumping.

It is believed that these motor coordination issues can be related to differences in brain structure and function. However, there are a variety of interventions and therapies available that can help people with autism improve their motor skills and perform everyday tasks with greater ease.

One such intervention is occupational therapy, which can help individuals with autism develop the skills necessary to complete everyday tasks. For example, an occupational therapist may work with a person with autism to improve their fine motor skills by practicing handwriting or manipulating small objects.

Furthermore, physical therapy can also be beneficial for people with autism who struggle with gross motor skills, such as balance and coordination. Physical therapy can help individuals develop strength, flexibility, and endurance, which can ultimately lead to greater independence and participation in physical activities.

It's important to note that every person with autism is unique, and their motor coordination issues may vary in severity and presentation. Therefore, it's essential to work with a qualified healthcare professional to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses the specific needs and challenges of each individual.

Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity

While autism can impact a person's physical health, engaging in regular exercise and physical activity can have numerous benefits for individuals with autism. Not only can it improve their physical health, but it can also promote social interaction, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.

Research has shown that exercise can help improve motor coordination in individuals with autism, as well as increase muscle strength and endurance. Additionally, participating in physical activities such as team sports or dance classes can provide opportunities for social interaction and communication.

Furthermore, exercise has been shown to have positive effects on mental health. It can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are commonly experienced by individuals with autism. Exercise has also been linked to improved cognitive function and academic performance.

It's important to note that every individual with autism is unique, and their abilities and preferences may vary when it comes to exercise and physical activity. Therefore, it's essential to work with a qualified healthcare professional or therapist to develop an exercise program that is tailored to the individual's needs and interests.

In conclusion, incorporating regular exercise and physical activity into the lives of individuals with autism can have significant benefits for both their physical health and overall well-being.

Medications Used to Treat Autism Symptoms

While there is no cure for autism, medications are often prescribed to help manage the symptoms associated with the disorder. These medications can include antipsychotics, antidepressants, stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs.

However, like any medication, these drugs can have potential side effects that may impact physical health. For example, some antipsychotic medications may cause weight gain and increase the risk of developing diabetes or high cholesterol. Similarly, stimulants used to treat ADHD symptoms may increase heart rate and blood pressure.

It's important for healthcare professionals to carefully monitor individuals with autism who are taking medication to ensure that any potential side effects are identified and addressed promptly. Additionally, it's essential for individuals with autism and their caregivers to be aware of the potential risks associated with medication use and to communicate any concerns they may have with their healthcare provider.

As with any treatment approach for autism, medication should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes behavioral therapy, education support, and other interventions tailored to the individual's unique needs.

Strategies for Managing Sensory Overload

Sensory overload can be overwhelming and distressing for individuals with autism. However, there are various strategies that can help manage the symptoms of sensory overload.

One strategy is to create a sensory-friendly environment by reducing stimuli such as loud noises or bright lights. This can be achieved by using noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to reduce background noise, turning off bright lights, or using dimmer switches.

Another helpful strategy is to use weighted blankets or vests. These items provide deep pressure stimulation, which can help calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety.

Additionally, fidget toys or stress balls can provide tactile stimulation and serve as a distraction from overwhelming stimuli.

It's important to note that every individual with autism may have unique sensory needs and preferences, so it's essential to work with a qualified healthcare professional or therapist to develop a personalized plan for managing sensory overload.

The Potential Link Between Inflammation in the Body and Symptoms of Autism

Recent research has suggested a potential link between inflammation in the body and symptoms of autism. Inflammation is a natural response of the immune system to injury or infection, but when it becomes chronic, it can have negative effects on physical and mental health.

Studies have shown that individuals with autism may have higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood than the general population. This inflammation may contribute to some of the behavioral and cognitive symptoms associated with autism, such as anxiety, irritability, and difficulty with social interaction.

While more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between inflammation and autism, there are interventions that may help reduce inflammation in the body. These include dietary changes, such as reducing intake of processed foods and sugar, increasing consumption of anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits and vegetables, and taking supplements like omega-3 fatty acids.

Additionally, regular exercise has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Engaging in physical activity can help reduce levels of inflammatory markers in the blood and improve overall health.

It's important for individuals with autism and their caregivers to work with a healthcare professional to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses all aspects of their health, including potential inflammation. By incorporating interventions that target inflammation in the body, we may be able to improve overall well-being for individuals with autism.

The Role of Genetics in Autism and How It Can Impact Physical Health

While the exact causes of autism are still not fully understood, research has shown that genetics may play a significant role. Studies have found that certain genes are associated with an increased risk of developing autism. Additionally, if one family member has autism, there is a higher likelihood that other family members may also be affected.

The impact of genetics on physical health in individuals with autism can vary depending on the specific genetic factors involved. For example, some genetic mutations have been linked to an increased risk of seizure disorders, which can significantly impact a person's physical health and quality of life.

Additionally, some genetic mutations have been associated with other medical conditions that may co-occur with autism. For example, individuals with mutations in the PTEN gene may be at an increased risk for gastrointestinal issues, cancer, and macrocephaly (an abnormally large head size).

It's important to note that not all individuals with autism will have underlying genetic mutations or related medical conditions. However, understanding the potential role of genetics in autism can help healthcare professionals develop personalized treatment plans that address any physical health concerns.

Furthermore, genetic testing may be recommended for individuals with autism to identify any underlying genetic factors that could impact their physical health. This information can help inform treatment decisions and improve overall well-being for individuals with autism.

FAQs

Can autism cause seizures?

Yes, epilepsy and seizures are more common in people with autism than in the general population. While not everyone with autism will experience seizures, it is important to be aware of the potential for this comorbidity. If you or someone you know with autism is experiencing seizures, it is important to speak to a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and explore treatment options.

Is there a link between autism and autoimmune disorders?

Some studies have suggested that there may be a link between autism and autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis or celiac disease. However, more research is needed to better understand this association. It's important for individuals with autism and their caregivers to be aware of any potential symptoms of autoimmune disorders and seek medical attention if necessary.

Can physical exercise help alleviate some symptoms of autism?

Yes, physical exercise can be beneficial for individuals with autism. Exercise has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety and depression, increase social interaction, and improve overall health. Additionally, exercise can help improve motor coordination skills in individuals with autism who struggle with gross motor skills.

Are there any alternative therapies that can help manage symptoms of autism?

While there is no cure for autism, there are several alternative therapies that may help manage symptoms. These include music therapy, animal-assisted therapy, art therapy, and sensory integration therapy. It's important to work with a qualified healthcare professional to determine which therapies may be appropriate for each individual.

Can medication help manage symptoms of autism?

There are several medications that may be prescribed to manage specific symptoms of autism, such as irritability or hyperactivity. However, medication should always be used in conjunction with other therapies and interventions tailored specifically to the individual's needs.

Is autism a mental illness?

No, autism is not a mental illness. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the way a person communicates, interacts with others, and processes information. While autism can impact a person's mental health and well-being, it is important to recognize that it is not a mental illness.

Conclusion

While autism primarily affects a person's behavior and social skills, it can also impact their physical health in a number of ways. From sensory overload to sleep disorders, people with autism may experience a range of symptoms that can impact their overall well-being. However, with appropriate support and interventions, many people with autism are able to lead happy and fulfilling lives.

Sources

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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