After yet another display of lining up toys or endlessly performing the same behavior over and over it’s not unusual for parents to wonder if their child may have not one but two disorders – autism and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
OCD is a neurological disorder that causes obsessive thoughts and behaviors and can greatly disrupt a person’s life. There are two main elements to OCD, thoughts or obsessions and compulsions or behaviors.
The obsessions are experienced as thoughts, images or impulses and can be persistent. Whereas compulsions are repetitive behaviors that the sufferer feels compelled to carry out whether they want to or not. The performance of the repetitive behaviors is usually done to reduce distress or to stop a particular event.
It is common for people with an autism spectrum disorder to also display repetitive behaviors and have repetitive thoughts, comparable to those who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is a condition that generally makes sufferers feel uncomfortable with their symptoms, and wish that they could get rid of them. On the other hand children with autism are usually unconcerned with their various obsessions or behaviors and may even see them as comforting, increasing the frequency during stressful situations as a calming mechanism.
There are two possible treatments for autism and OCD-like behaviors: behavioral therapy, and medication. Frequently, these two forms of therapy are prescribed together.
The most common kind of medication prescribed for treating OCD behaviors in autistic individuals are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). SSRIs are antidepressant medications that have also shown to be helpful in reducing OCD behaviors. However, they can come with some serious side effects including an increased risk of suicide. Parents’ whose children are on SSRIs should monitor behaviors closely and report anything out of the ordinary to a medical professional.
Behavioral therapy can be another way to reduce repetitive behaviors, however there is not one treatment that has been found to be consistently effective for all cases of autism. This is due to the fact that no two cases of autism are exactly the same.
Therefore, before a behavioral therapy is selected to deal with autism and OCD symptoms, an IQ test and/or functional cognitive level test will usually be administered. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) works well for lower functioning children or younger children, and Cognitive Behavioral therapy can show good results for higher functioning, more verbal children with autism.
To ensure best results it is often recommended that behavioral treatments and medication be combined. The medication is usually prescribed to help the child become more open to the behavioral therapy. Since behavioral therapy can be challenging – especially as most children don’t see their OCD behaviors as undesirable – medication can make the difference in encouraging children to be open to the suggested changes.
While autism and OCD can occur in the same individual, it is much more common for children with autism to simply display behaviors that are similar to those of OCD, but that are in fact a part of their autism symptoms and not a separate case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Nonetheless, it is believed that autism and OCD based repetitive thoughts and behaviors are quite similar in the early stages of development, but become dissimilar over time as they often serve different functions within the two disorders.
Dealing with autism and OCD at an early age should be prioritized to ensure that regular childhood and life experiences such as early education occurs more smoothly. The fewer obsessive-compulsive symptoms a child with autism has generally, the more positive their educational and life experiences will be.
If you believe your child is suffering from OCD contact your doctor to discuss diagnosis and treatment options.