Iron deficiency appears to be associated with autism, although researchers aren't yet sure why. Autism is a developmental disorder that occurs in the first three years of life and affects a child's ability to communicate and interact with others. Treatment options include behavior and communication therapies, educational therapies and medications. Alternative treatments, such as special diets, are being researched to determine safety and beneficial effects.
Iron deficiency is more prevalent in children with autism, according to a 2002 study published by A. Latif and colleagues in "Autism." Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, impaired growth and intellectual development and gastrointestinal tract abnormalities. It may also cause mood changes and poor concentration. However, iron deficiency in children with anemia is not linked with severity of autistic symptoms, developmental level and behavioral problems, according to a 2010 study published by Ayhan Bilgiç and colleagues in "Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders."
Many autistic children have insufficient dietary iron intake. Iron therapy can significantly improve the sleep disturbances common in children with autism, according to a 2007 study published by Cara F. Dosman and colleagues in "Pediatric Neurology." Dosman and colleagues suggested that children with autism spectrum disorders be routinely screened for iron deficiency.
Although iron supplements are potentially beneficial, the role of iron in autism is still controversial. In fact, it has been proposed that excess dietary iron is the root cause of the increase in childhood autism diagnoses. Excess iron results in a hyperactive immune system, according to a 2003 study published by U. Padhye in "Medical Hypothesis." Intense allergic reactions can contribute to neurodegeneration, or deterioration of neurons. Iron chelators, or agents that prevent iron-mediated injury to cells, have shown beneficial results in autism. However, chelation therapy can also be dangerous and should only be used under the care of a physician.
Asperger's Disorder is a milder autism spectrum disorder. It is a developmental disorder characterized by limited interests or an unusual preoccupation with a particular subject to the exclusion of other activities. Children with Asperger's disorder are much less likely to have iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia, according to the 2002 "Autism" study.
Although iron supplementation treats deficiency in many children, a small subset of children did not respond to iron supplementation following treatment in a 2004 study by C.F. Dosman and colleagues at Pulsus.com. The researchers suggested that this subset of children may require prolonged treatment.