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Anxiety, sensory over-responsivity, and gastrointestinal problems in children with autism spectrum disorders

TitleAnxiety, sensory over-responsivity, and gastrointestinal problems in children with autism spectrum disorders
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsMazurek, MO, Vasa, RA, Kalb, LG, Kanne, SM, Rosenberg, D, Keefer, A, Murray, DS, Freedman, B, Lowery, LA
JournalJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology
Date PublishedJan
ISBN Number1573-2835; 0091-0627

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) experience high rates of anxiety, sensory processing problems, and gastrointestinal (GI) problems; however, the associations among these symptoms in children with ASD have not been previously examined. The current study examined bivariate and multivariate relations among anxiety, sensory over-responsivity, and chronic GI problems in a sample of 2,973 children with ASD enrolled in the Autism Treatment Network (ages 2-17 years, 81.6 % male). Twenty-four percent of the sample experienced at least one type of chronic GI problem (constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and/or nausea lasting three or more months). Children with each type of GI problem had significantly higher rates of both anxiety and sensory over-responsivity. Sensory over-responsivity and anxiety were highly associated, and each provided unique contributions to the prediction of chronic GI problems in logistic regression analyses. The results indicate that anxiety, sensory over-responsivity and GI problems are possibly interrelated phenomenon for children with ASD, and may have common underlying mechanisms.


Lead Author
Micah Mazurek

Study Aims and Objectives
To examine the relationship between anxiety, gastrointestinal (GI) problems, and sensory over-responsivity in children and adolescents with ASD.

Methods- Sample, Procedure, Study Measures, Analysis
2,973 children and adolescents with ASD from the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network Registry were enrolled in the study. Participants were between the ages of 2 and 17, and most (81.6%) were boys. Parents completed questionnaires about their children’s symptoms of anxiety, “sensory over-responsivity” (negative responses to sensory input such as sound, touch, etc.), and gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea, and abdominal pain). Measures included the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), the Short Sensory Profile (SSP) and the GI Symptom Inventory Questionnaire.

Results- Main Findings
Nearly one-fourth (24%) of children the study had at least one type of GI problem that had lasted for three months or longer. Children with chronic GI issues had much higher levels of both anxiety and sensory over-responsivity. Children with higher levels of anxiety also had greater sensory over-responsivity. Even when included in the same statistical model, anxiety and sensory over-responsivity were independently related to specific categories of GI problems (constipation, bloating, nausea, and abdominal pain) and to the total number of chronic GI problems.

Conclusion- Summary Statement
Anxiety, sensory over-responsivity, and GI problems appear to be highly related in children with ASD. These co-occurring symptoms affect a large number of children with ASD, and need to be addressed in an interdisciplinary and coordinated fashion. More research needs to be done to determine the causes and most effective treatments for this group of related symptoms.

PubMed ID22850932
Summary category: