Raising Healthy Kids

More Than Autism: Coping with Co-Existing Conditions

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Did you know that nearly three-quarters of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also have another medical or psychiatric condition? These co-existing conditions — what doctors call co-morbid conditions — can take a tremendous toll on the lives of children with ASD and their families.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a developmental disorder characterized by challenges with social skills, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and
differences.

“When autism and co-morbid conditions occur, there can be increased impairments in the child’s behavioral, academic and psychosocial functioning,” says Melissa Hendriks, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist who works with patients and families at Henry Ford’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CADD).

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, up to 84 percent of people with ASD have anxiety symptoms. In addition to anxiety, Dr. Hendriks says some conditions that frequently occur with ASD include:

  • Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
  • Seizures
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

How Do These Co-Existing Conditions Affect ASD Care?

Because these co-morbid conditions are so common, it’s important to understand how they can complicate ASD treatment and vice versa, from making diagnosis more difficult to intensifying symptoms.

“For example, many children with autism spectrum disorders experience clinically significant anxiety. These children can experience greater autism symptom severity and can be more likely to exhibit behaviors such as social avoidance, tantrums and other disruptive behaviors,” says Dr. Hendriks. “When we address the co-morbid conditions, we may achieve improvements in the quality of life for both the child and family.”

Also, Dr. Hendriks points out that some behaviors associated with ASD are similar to other disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders. “Making an accurate diagnosis can be complicated by the presence of co-morbid conditions due to overlapping symptoms,” she says.

Related Topic: Autism & Puberty – A Parents Guide

A recent article in the Pediatric Clinics of North America pointed out the importance of having a “medical home” for all children, featuring a health care provider working with a team of professionals to coordinate and provide comprehensive and continuous medical care.

Dr. Hendriks says managing co-existing conditions with medications or behavioral therapy can reduce symptoms that
appear to worsen a child’s ASD symptoms.

“Identifying co-morbid conditions with ASD is important, so appropriate evidence-based treatment can be put into place,” Dr. Hendriks stresses.

To make an appointment with a Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities specialist, call (313) 916-4665 or visit henryford.com/autism for information.

Register now for the 11th Annual Living with Autism Workshop, presented by Metro Parent magazine and Henry Ford Health System,  on 7:30 am to 4:30 pm, Friday, May 4, 2018, at the Detroit Marriott Troy.

Dr. Melissa Hendriks is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, seeing patients through Henry Ford’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CADD) at Henry Ford Medical Center locations in Grosse Pointe, Dearborn and Hamtramck.