Welcome to the February edition of Ask Dr. Emily!
We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Rastall, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format. We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Rastall will do her best to answer them each month.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: My 12 year grandson with autism is having trouble with portion size on everything, like how much shampoo to use, soap, using butter, mayo, just everything! He fixates on eating one thing at a time and is getting very picky about not liking foods he use to like. He is also getting very OCD. Does this go along with having autism?
A: It is not uncommon for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to present with executive functioning challenges. That means that things like thinking ahead, planning, weighing consequences, resisting impulses, and stopping yourself when it’s time to stop, are difficult to do. Portion control is another one of those things that is processed in the executive functioning center of the brain (i.e., the frontal lobe), so it makes sense that this is something that is challenging for your grandson to do.
With regard to “OCD” symptoms, one of the diagnostic criteria for ASD involves “repetitive patterns of behavior or interest.” This can include “ritualized patterns of verbal or non-verbal behaviors” (e.g., eating foods one at a time in the same order, repeating words a specific number of times, closing every door in the house), “insistence on sameness” (e.g., needing the same green plastic cup for dinner) or “inflexible adherence to routines” (e.g., insisting that you drive home the same way every day). Often sensory sensitivities (another diagnostic criteria for ASD) play into food preferences (or lack there of) too. While many of these symptoms can mimic OCD (or obsessive compulsive disorder), much of the time these are expected behaviors to see with an ASD diagnosis. In conclusion, while OCD can occur with ASD, most individuals with ASD do not have “true” OCD.
Q: I have 13 year old fraternal twin boys, one was diagnosed with autism when he was 7-years-old, and the other with Tourette’s when he was 10. Now I am being told that my son with Tourette’s is showing signs of autism and my son with autism is showing signs of Tourette’s. How can this be happening at different ages and times? I need help to understand this.
A: While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) presents early in development, symptoms may not become notably impactful until later in an individual’s life. This might lead to a diagnosis that occurs later in life. Conversely, ASD symptoms that develop early in life may present as significantly impactful right away, which would lead to earlier diagnosis. With regard to Tourette’s, this can develop at different times for different children; one may develop it in elementary school while another’s symptoms may present around puberty. Tourette’s and ASD have been known to co-occur more often than would be expected by coincidence. For more information, you may be interested in the following book: Kids in the Syndrome Mix of ADHD, LD, Autism Spectrum, Tourette’s, Anxiety and More! By M Kutscher and T Attwood
Q: When puberty hit our 16-year-old Trey, OCD hit his high functioning autism really hard. He went from mildly medicated and in all mainstreamed classes to highly medicated (and yet unaffected) to moved into several special education classes. His anxiety has the entire family in tears at this point. We don’t know how to help him. Lights on and off, clothes on and off, food in and out, it is never ending. It doesn’t help that he is 6’6 and 400 pounds. We really need help. Any advice?
A: It is not uncommon for mental health challenges (anxiety, depression) to present with onset during puberty. I suggest you consult with your primary care provider and ask for a referral for a mental health evaluation. You will want this to occur with a psychiatric provider who has training in assessing, diagnosing, and treating obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and who also understands autism spectrum disorder (ASD). That provider, based on the diagnostic conclusions, will be able to provide treatment recommendations from there.