Many of the treatments for IBS relief are also great for the overall physical and mental health of autistic folks.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or “autism,” is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes someone to experience differences in behavior, communication, and learning. ASD can affect every aspect of someone’s life, including their physical health.

Below, we’ll explore the possible connection between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ASD, including how ASD can affect gut health and tips for approaching IBS treatment in autistic children and adults.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal (GI) condition that causes abdominal pain, cramping, and bloating, as well as frequent bouts of diarrhea, constipation, or both. IBS affects 10–15% of people in the United States alone.

Currently, there’s very little research on the relationship between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and IBS, but research shows that GI issues aren’t uncommon in autistic folks. Several studies have also found a connection between ASD and digestive difficulties.

One large review of studies from 2022 explored the prevalence of GI issues in autistic children and adolescents.

According to the review, GI difficulties are more common in autistic children and adolescents than in neurotypical children and adolescents. Some of the most commonly reported digestive difficulties include constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and food intolerances and allergies.

One thing to keep in mind is that this review explored general GI issues but not necessarily IBS. With that said, because symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain are often present in IBS, there may be a possible connection — though more research is needed.

Many studies have explored the relationship between digestive issues and overall gut health in ASD. Most of the literature shows that digestive difficulties are a common complaint in ASD, especially for autistic children.

Statistics suggest that roughly 46–84% of autistic children experience digestive issues and that autistic adults are 7 times more likely to report experiencing GI issues to a doctor. Some of the most common issues include:

One of the leading theories on why digestive difficulties affect autistic folks more is because of something called the “gut-brain axis.” This gut-brain connection describes how our brain and gut communicate through nerves and other chemical signals.

Autistic people are more likely to experience mental health symptoms like stress, anxiety, and depression. Research shows that these same emotional symptoms can cause an increase in GI issues such as constipation, stomach pain, and other IBS symptoms.

Some research also suggests that autistic people are more likely to have alterations in their gut microbiome — the microorganisms that inhabit our digestive tract. According to studies, microbiome changes are more likely to cause GI symptoms, like constipation and diarrhea.

While there’s no cure for IBS, treatment can help manage symptoms when they arise and prevent future flare-ups from happening.

One of the most important elements of IBS treatment is recognizing and avoiding symptom triggers. Common IBS triggers include stress and anxiety, food sensitivities or allergies, certain medications, and hormonal changes, to name a few.

Because autistic folks are more likely to experience some of these triggers — like stress or food sensitivities — navigating IBS symptoms can be difficult, especially for autistic children.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child or an autistic adult with IBS, here are some IBS treatment approaches to consider trying:

  • Incorporate balanced foods: Although eating well can be a complex activity for autistic folks with food aversions, it’s still important to find ways to incorporate gut-nourishing foods. When in doubt, a dietitian who has experience working with autistic people can be a great source of education and support.
  • Find ways to reduce stress: Autistic people are more likely to experience emotional symptoms like stress and anxiety, especially at school or work. Accommodation, both inside and outside of the home, can help make daily life easier, which can help reduce stress and possibly even digestive symptoms.
  • Add more daily movement: While there are plenty of benefits to moving your body regularly, any kind of exercise or movement is especially beneficial for autistic folks. Not only can movement help regulate the gut, but it can also reduce stress — two factors that can contribute to GI symptoms.

It can take some time to find the approaches that work for you or your child, but any small steps toward improving gut health can also ultimately help improve symptoms.

Talk with a doctor about other IBS treatments or approaches that may be right for you. You can also ask them for a recommendation for a local dietitian or nutritionist who has experience working with autistic people.

Research shows that autistic folks are more likely to experience digestive symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation. While there aren’t many studies on IBS and ASD, initial research suggests that digestive issues and conditions are much more common in autistic folks.

If you’re an autistic person or the parent of an autistic child or adult who lives with IBS, consider reaching out to a doctor to create an IBS treatment plan. With the right IBS treatment approaches, you can learn how to manage symptoms when they arise and keep flare-ups at bay.