Whole body dysfunction

Many people with autism have medical problems. The numbers reported in studies vary widely depending upon the questions asked and the methods used.  Many or even most may have underlying metabolic, physiological or molecular “issues.”


Whole body dysfunction can manifest in a great range of symptoms and issues.  Medical and body problems particularly commonly reported include

  • Gastrointestinal problems (constipation, diarrhea, esophagitis, food allergies)
  • Immune-related problems such as allergies, rashes or frequent infections
  • Seizures
  • Sleep disturbances

A wide range of other medical problems and seemingly idiosyncratic symptoms may co-occur, such as obesity, failure to thrive (poor weight gain, etc.), hormonal problems, low bone density, severe premenstrual syndrome, and much more.

There are differences in how to make sense of the presence of medical and whole-body issues in autism.  Here are some main different viewpoints. These medical/body problems may be framed as:

  • coincidental, rare, and separate from the “autism” and not pertinent
  • coincidental, fairly, and separate from the “autism” but cause difficulties due to how being uncomfortable or in pain can contribute to irritability and reduce available attention for other things
  • surface manifestations of underlying molecular and systems disturbances that impact the whole organism including the brain and therefore are intrinsically related to the “autism”

Saying that autism is a “whole-body dysfunction” can mean that all of the different features and levels of autism are part of what “autism” is, not just the behaviors that are used to define or diagnose it.


Saying that autism “is” a “whole body (or systems) dysfunction” can work if you accept that autism is heterogeneous – that people with autism are different from each other.

For any one person, their “autism” would include their own full constellation of body, brain and behavior features – strengths and challenges.  Their own combination of issues may not be identical to anyone else’s.  But for them, this is the package they are dealing with.

From this person-based point of view, talking about “autism” as purely behavioral is an abstraction– it  leaves out many dimensions that are important for each individual.  It is more useful for thinking about groups of people with autism, but less useful for thinking richly about any one individual with autism.


  • Behavior: A brain that is functioning differently will produce different responses to the world — different behaviors
  • Genes: Many genes may be expressed in lots of parts of the body, not just the brain or any one organ.
  • Environment: Environmental factors may affect molecules that are distributed all over the body and create all manner of problems
  • Sensation, Perceiving and Thinking: Biological changes from genes and environment may affect how the cells in the brain function and how they process incoming information and internal sorting of information


The “whole body dysfunction” vantage point does not on its own explain a number of things

  • Specifically HOW body pathophysiology translates into brain functional alterations
  • The integrity of living with “whole body dysfunction”:
    • What it feels like to live with so-called “whole-body dysfunction”
    • What the world looks like when perception is performed by a person with these kinds of processes going on in their “biological substrate”
    • What the integrity of living this way is about
    • How one can want to “get better” and still honor the integrity of one’s present state and experience

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