As if a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and his parents do not have enough to deal with, many children with the diagnosis also have co-morbid disorders that complicate their treatment and their lives. Comorbid disorders are readily identified and tend to fall into six categories: medical conditions, intellectual disabilities, anxiety and mood disorders, behavior-related disorders, and sensory processing disorders.
The most common comorbid medical condition is epilepsy. Rates can range from 20 to 40 percent and is most common in children who have more severe intellectual disabilities. Children affected by both autism and epilepsy often have overall poor health and are subject to premature death so it is important for these children to be diagnosed early and treated for the seizure disorder. It is of utmost importance that seizure medications are maximized in order to control the seizures. A rare syndrome that is sometimes seen in children with autism as well as epilepsy is tuberous sclerosis, a genetic disorder that causes benign tumors to form in the brain and other vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, eyes, lungs, and skin. Children with this comorbid disorder also tend to have lower IQ as well as many health and behavioral problems.
There is quite a controversy over the percentage of children diagnosed with ASD whom also have an intellectual disability. Some say that only 40% have this dual diagnosis while others put it at 75%. Whether it is 40% or 75%, there are a significant number of children with autism that have a non-verbal Intelligence Quotient (IQ) below 70. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome are the exception and have normal to above intelligence and do not show delayed language skills as do children with classic autism spectrum disorder. All children with ASD whether it is severe or mild have problems socially. They lack the ability to pick up on social cues such as jokes and sarcasm or to read body language and facial expressions.
While there have been studies done concerning the comorbid diagnoses of anxiety and mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, there has been no conclusive evidence that either of these coexist. It has been shown that the symptoms of anxiety and bipolar disorder (which is highly controversial in children) can best be explained as part of the spectrum. A form of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is seen in many children with ASD. The difference between OCD in autistic children and those without the disorder is that children with a comorbid diagnosis enjoy the repetitive nature of the disorder and will play with a favorite toy in a repetitive fashion for hours. Children without ASD, on the other hand, would do anything to be rid of the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors such as washing their hands twenty times or repetitive checking things such as turning lights on and off.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that causes difficulties with processing information from the five senses: vision, auditory, touch, olfaction, and taste. The majority of people, no matter where on the autism spectrum, have trouble with some sort of sensory processing whether it is sounds like loud music or noisy crowds, the inability to tolerate the feel of certain types of clothing or the taste and texture of many foods.
Autism Spectrum Disorder encompasses a multitude of diagnoses and conditions, some more controversial than others. There are many, many treatments for the symptoms of ASD which are at best helpful and at worst destructive. The best way to treat these children is disputable and the debates will probably persist for years with the ensuing research results. There are many organizations and websites where information can be found pertaining to any aspect of ASD. When the day is done, however, it is these parents whom have to make the decisions as to what they feel is in the best interest of their children.