Autism rates have dramatically increased over the past few decades, and more and more research is going into what causes it. A recent breakthrough has pointed to a surprising possible contributor: gut bacteria.

As I mentioned in my previous blog on gut bacteria, they are the symbiotic bacteria that help us survive and are a normal presence in the human body. Scientists and physicians are coming to regard them as an organ as vital as your liver and kidneys. Recent research has suggested that many children with autism have altered gut bacteria.

We already knew that autistic children are three and a half times more likely to have gut distress than other children. And a new study of 23 children with autism found that their bacteria produce toxic waste products not found in non-autistic children.  We do not know if autism alters gut bacteria or if gut bacteria cause or exacerbate it. However, new research published in the scientific magazine Cell from the California Institute of Technology suggests the latter.

The Institute injected a virus-like molecule into pregnant mice to trigger autistic-like symptoms in their children. They found that the newborns had altered gut bacteria, and, when the Institute treated them with healthy bacteria, their symptoms became less severe.  While this study is far from conclusive, it does suggest that there may be a causal relationship between having unhealthy gut bacteria and autism.

A recent Atlantic article also discussed how some doctors, like gastroenterologist Kara Margolis, have started helping regressing autistic children by treating their gastrointestinal tract rather than their mind. While it doesn’t work in all cases, it has worked in many. If your autistic child suddenly regresses, ask your physician about treating their gut.

While an ever-increasing body of evidence points to a strong gut connection to autism, there is no scientific consensus. Understanding how the gastrointestinal tract, normal microbiota, and diet affect behavior is one of the newest and most exciting medical and scientific frontiers. In the coming years, we will gain new knowledge about these relationships and how to balance them. However, there are a multitude of health benefits to having a healthy gut for anyone, so why wait to act? In addition to any other therapies used, we should provide our autistic kids with support they need to have good guts.