Finding Hope in The Comorbid Disorders of Autism
Most parents of autistic children will tell you that the most intimidating part of raising an autistic child isn't always their autism, it's often the comorbid disorders that tend to accompany their autism. Most ASD diagnosed children have at least one comorbid disorder accompanying their autism, some have several. Researchers say that some 75 percent of children with autism have a comorbid disorder as well. These comorbid disorders aren’t something that should induce deep rooted fear though. Many of them bring signs of hope.
Signs of understanding come when something suddenly makes sense that once didn’t.
When my child was younger I was so focused on his autism that it was hard for me to see that these side diagnoses are not just "part of his autism," but in fact completely separate and seemingly “unrelated” conditions. I use the term “unrelated” loosely. Each diagnosis may be part of one big picture; but, each of the small parts that make up that big picture are each equally as important as the next. Let’s start off by looking at some of the most common co-morbid disorders associated with autism.
Common Comorbidities to Autism:
- Gastrointestinal Disorders
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- Seizures and Epilepsy
- Intellectual Disabilities
- Bipolar Disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Tourette Syndrome and other TIC Disorders
- General Anxiety Disorder
- Tuberous Sclerosis
- Clinical Depression
- Visual problems
- Explosive Behavior Disorder
- Sleep Disorders
- Childhood Speech Apraxia
- Anxiety Disorders
Much like the all too true saying, "If you've met one autistic individual you've met one autistic individual...” No two autistic individuals are the same and it’s unlikely that any two autistic individuals will present with the exact same comorbid disorders.
For example, the comorbidities accompanying my son's autism are: Generalized Anxiety Disorder; A Severe Sleep Disorder; Speech Apraxia; A TIC Disorder; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; ADHD; Mild Mental Retardation; Explosive Behavior Disorder; and, Sensory Processing Disorder.
While I realize that may seem like an excessive number of diagnosis for one child, in our world it's somewhat typical. Each diagnosis brought its own fear and its own course of treatment to follow. At the same time, each brought with it its own sense of relief. There was an answer to so many questions in each of those diagnostic titles. Each just as important as the next and each requiring some sort of attention. Whether it be do nothing and watch the symptoms or involve a doctor further, I realized that each must be addressed to treat my child as a whole.
With these little rays of hope I had confusion though. It’s not easy to diagnose autistic children sometimes. By definition, impairments in communication and social interaction are “core symptoms” of autism. They without a doubt play a role in the challenges that clinicians face in diagnosing medical comorbidities, and there are many challenges. For example, with my son’s sleep came many questions. Was it just his autism or was It a comorbid sleep disorder? It was hard to tell because sleep issues are such common issues associated with autism. Some 80 percent of children with autism experience some issues with sleep. Sleep simply eludes them.
We have never been able to pinpoint a name for his sleep disorder, but we have had numerous doctors say it's the worse they have ever tried to treat. Now that he is verbal and a teenager he expresses to me how much it bothers him when he doesn't get a full night’s sleep [which is hardly ever]. He expresses that he has trouble thinking clearly during the day. Like any of us would be, he's moody and he loses his temper with his brother more often when he hasn't gotten at least 3 hours of sleep. As much as it wears on him it wears on me to the max too. The thing that gives me hope is that as he has aged it has evened out more.
As with many parent’s searching for answers, our efforts to correct his sleep disorder have stretched to the extreme at times. We have tried so many medications, it's not only ridiculous it's intimidating. We have put him through countless sleep studies; watching as he struggled with them to cover his body in their electrodes. I've filled out so many sleep logs that the thought of them makes me sick. In the end, we've been left with more questions than answers, but hope none-the-less. We've been able to distinguish a pattern in his sleep and we now know that he does not have a normal REM cycle. So, it is not just his autism, it is a comorbid disorder. Despite knowing this we do not have a single clue as to how we can effectively treat it. I’ve never lost hope though. Knowing it is a comorbid gives me hope that we will find an answer to it as he ages.
As I write I tend to interview others for their point of view on the particular topic that I am writing about. This is always my first step, then I research. While chatting with parents for this article one parent told me that the diagnosis of Explosive Behavior Disorder was a miracle for her family. They had lost hope in maintaining any control of their child’s massive meltdowns. Originally thinking that the behavior was simply their child’s autism and there was no hope in it getting better, the diagnosis gave them more courses of treatment to try. In the end, medication and therapy helped their child so much that he now rarely has a meltdown. This is a huge change from the beating the mother was used to taking daily when her child would meltdown. I can relate personally to this family’s plight. My son was diagnosed with EBD when he was younger as well. When he was 2 he broke my eye socket during a meltdown. His meltdowns happened daily for about 5 years until his diagnosis; then, they slowly dwindled from weekly to biweekly for another 5 years. His diagnosis also helped my family find some peace through treatment and medication.
My point is, you are not alone. Things do get better and you should never give up. An added diagnosis doesn’t change your child any more than the actual title of autism did. Your child is still your child and you still love them. Co-Morbid disorders are not something to be feared. They can be like a “Bingo” moment where things make sense to you all of a sudden.
Whether you are a parent of an autistic child or the grandparent of one... the aunt or the uncle of one... even if you have no tie to autism in your life what so ever: it's important to realize there's more to autism than just autism. There's a whole world of disorders and syndromes that these children and their families cope with. There is a whole world out there beyond what the news and online articles tell you. We must not forget that there is always hope though. We special needs parent’s never give up and never give in.