Autistic people with an intellectual disability are more likely to display aggressive challenging behaviour than their neurotypical people. This can harm both the person and affect relationships and their care. The need to understand the causes of this behaviour is extremely important. This project focuses on the link between gastrointestinal (stomach) issues and aggressive behaviour in children within this population. 

If we can understand this link, we may be able to reduce pain through early medical interventions and help autistic people to live calmer, healthier and happier lives.

Up to 85% of autistic children have been found to experience some form of gastrointestinal symptoms. One area that needs further research is the specific issue of Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux Disease (GORD), which is particularly common in autistic children with a learning disability. It causes discomfort and pain. We know pain is linked to aggression. It can also disrupt sleep and could lead to self-harming behaviour.

If we can understand the more about the link between GORD and aggression, the sooner we can diagnose and treat the issue. This can potentially stop aggressive behaviour from becoming a reinforced habit and reduce overall harm.

The research process

We will focus on children in this study. We will gather existing data and collect and analyse new data.

New data will be gathered from children with autism and/or intellectual disability who have been referred to the Gastrointestinal clinic at Birmingham Children’s Hospital (BCH). 

The researcher will look at video recordings and questionnaires. The information gathered will then be analysed to see if there is a link between GORD symptoms and confirmed cases of GORD and aggression. Data relating to the severity and types of challenging behaviours as well as the rates of GORD amongst comorbid conditions will also be collected. This may give important information into differences in expression of challenging behaviours across the research population.

How will this improve lives

If we understand more about gastrointestinal problems, we can diagnose them earlier and treat them sooner and more effectively. This will reduce pain and other symptoms that cause harm and distress for the autistic person and their family. We hope it will lead to a much greater quality of life for all.

This is a Charles Sharland Autistic Grant Scheme Award, supported by businessman and autism philanthropist Charles Sharland.