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Autistic children can get persistent cough

25th October 2011

Children who have autism often get a persistent cough, which is in turned tied to a difference in the way the windpipe in such children is structured, according to a recent US study, due to be published this week.

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The researchers believe they may have found the first physiological marker for autism, possibly pointing researchers in the direction of a particular chromosome or gene that simultaneously affected brain and lung development.

Lead researcher Barbara Stewart, a paediatric pulmonologist at Nemours Children's Clinic in Florida said that while she did not know the significance of differences in windpipe structure, it looked as if the autistic children she studied simply had more of everything.

She said that they had a particular type of symmetrical branching in their airways, leading to fewer large branches and a proliferation of small ones, different from the branching seen in children who do not have autism.

The children all had normal lung function, despite the fact that the structure of their lungs differed.

Daniel Coury, medical director for the Autism Treatment Network of Autism Speaks, said that while he had never heard of anything like the finding, researchers were beginning to believe autism was a whole-body disorder, rather than simply being neurological.

He said that some people with autism seemed to have lower gastrointestinal problems and fewer immune problems, and that such things were only possible if people got rid of the notion that autism was purely neurological.

The idea for the study first came about when Stewart noticed a large number of autistic children coming to her clinic with the same persistent cough.

She noticed the difference in lung structure after examining bronchoscopy results of 49 autistic children and 300 non-autistic children.

Autism causes problems with social development, and children with autism prefer repetitive or restrictive behaviours.

The condition seems to have a wide range of severity, with some studies suggesting that Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) may be much more prevalent than scientists currently suppose.

Steward said that, at first, the difference in structure was elusive, but that once she had managed to characterise it, it became obvious.

 

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