A gut feeling: Unlocking the mysteries of autism

Autism spectrum disorders are one of the true medical mysteries of our time.

From the scientists trying to discover the underlying cause, to the parents trying to find the best treatment plan, there is still so much that we don’t know. Even with the wide array of symptoms associated with autism, gastrointestinal issues remain a common complaint.

Studies have shown that there are inherent differences in the guts of children with autism.

Changes in the tissues of their gastrointestinal tract, differences in the bacteria that live in their guts, and symptoms ranging from chronic diarrhea to constipation have all been documented.

Yet, in all of the research thus far, we’re still left with more questions than answers, like:

  • What do children with autism and children with other GI disorders have in common?
  • How do these GI symptoms impact behavior and quality of life?
  • Is there a way for us to identify abdominal pain in children who can’t communicate their discomfort?
  • How can we best treat these GI issues?

As a scientist focused on the microbiome in children, these questions are highly relevant to my work. As the mother of a child with autism with limited verbal abilities and significant GI issues, these questions are everything.

We often wonder why life leads us down certain paths. With my skill set and interests and under the mentorship of Dr. James Versalovic, Milton J. Finegold Professor of Pathology at Baylor College of Medicine, my career naturally evolved into a Baylor faculty position within the Texas Children’s Microbiome Center. It was a few months later that my son, Kellen, was diagnosed with autism.

When Autism Speaks announced their GI and Neurobehavioral Processes grant almost a year ago, I recognized it as the opportunity of a lifetime. With an incredible team of autism experts, we put together my “dream study,” and you can imagine my awe when I found out we had been awarded the grant.

Today is Kellen’s 6th birthday. We’ll celebrate with a cake made especially to meet his diet restrictions to prevent the worst of his GI symptoms. We’ll hope that he doesn’t have a “bad day” with meltdowns that seem to defy explanation. We’ll laugh with him through the good moments and help him through the bad ones.

This is life with autism, and this research will positively impact so many families just like mine.

Our study will evaluate behavior, GI symptoms, the microbiome, and the metabolome, all in the hopes of identifying biomarkers of abdominal pain, understanding the impact of the gut-brain-microbiome axis, and determining metabolic disturbances in autism.

Our ultimate goal is to find better treatment options tailored to each child with autism.

We are recruiting children with autism, with and without GI symptoms, as well as their unaffected siblings. In addition, we will recruit children without autism, with and without GI symptoms.

This comprehensive study involves only the collection of a stool specimen and a series of surveys and diaries completed by parents, and we are now enrolling.

If you are interested in participating, please contact me at

Additional Resources

Learn more about the clinical trial.

By Ruth Ann Luna, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pathology at Baylor

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