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Local Autism Research Honored by Autism Speaks

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) - A study by UC Davis MIND Institute researchers is among Autism Speaks' top 10 scientific advances of 2013.

Each year, the international autism and science advocacy organization documents the progress made toward discovering causes of and treatments for autism spectrum disorder, identifying the top investigations contributing to better understanding of the condition.

The MIND Institute study, "Gastrointestinal Problems in Children with Autism, Developmental Delays or Typical Development," was published online Nov. 6 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. (see article on Rocklin & Roseville Today)

It found that children with autism experience gastrointestinal (GI) upsets such as constipation, diarrhea and sensitivity to foods six-to-eight times more often than do children who are developing typically, and that those symptoms are related to behavioral problems, including the social withdrawal, irritability and repetitive behaviors that are hallmarks of the condition.

The research was led by  Virginia Chaidez, a postdoctoral trainee in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences when the investigation was conducted who now is an analyst for UC Cal Fresh Nutrition Education Program state office.

"This recognition is very humbling, considering the caliber of research and investigators nationwide," Chaidez said. "And it is a wonderful affirmation that my work may in some way improve the lives of children with autism. I hope we can move to the next steps of figuring out why gastrointestinal problems occur so frequently in children with autism to find the most effective treatments."

Chaidez collaborated with Irva Hertz-Picciotto, chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health in the Department of Public Health Sciences, and Robin Hansen, director of the Center of Excellence for Developmental Disabilities at the MIND Institute and chief of the Division of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics.

The research was conducted as a component of the Northern California-based Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study, of which Hertz-Picciotto is principal investigator, between April 2003 and May 2011.

"After years of parents raising concerns about such symptoms, the huge differences we see between parental reports on children with autism spectrum disorder versus those on children with typical development puts to rest the idea that gastrointestinal problems among children with autism spectrum disorder are just an accumulation of case reports," said Irva Hertz-Picciotto. "Our data clearly show that gastrointestinal problems are very common in children with autism."

Hansen, the study's senior author and clinical director of the MIND Institute, said pediatricians and other health-care professionals should investigate therapeutic approaches to GI issues in their patients with autism spectrum disorder.

"Although we don't know why so many children with autism spectrum disorder have GI disturbances, it is important that health-care professionals not write off these symptoms as 'just part of autism,'" Hansen said. "They should instead investigate potential causes and treatments, as they would with any child, since these symptoms cause pain, alter behavior and create stress for both the child and their family."

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research to find the causes of and develop treatments and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fragile X syndrome, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, Down syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. For more information, visit

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