Autism and Associated Conditions: Medical Challenges

Certain health conditions may be associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These are described below, though there is no evidence for a causal relationship with ASD.

Autism and Associated Conditions: Medical Challenges

Sensory processing difficulties

Children with ASD often have difficulty processing everyday sensory information in all senses, from noise to touch to smells, sounds, and tastes. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. This can include hearing impairments and hearing loss.

These sensory issues often affect their behavior and can have a profound effect on their everyday life, not only disrupting a child’s ability to learn in school and form friendships but having a profound impact on family life.

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

ADHD can be commonly associated with ASD. If someone has ADHD, he/she has significant difficulties with things like poor attention, over-activity, and impulsiveness. ADHD, once diagnosed, can be managed with appropriate educational support and advice alongside medication, if necessary.

Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, or Apraxia

Dyslexia is usually described as a difficulty with reading and writing, and a child may have difficulties in visual processing skills. Dyspraxia is often described as having difficulties with learned patterns of movement and coordination in the absence of damage to the muscles or the nerves.

A child with physical dyspraxia will usually have generalized motor difficulties but may also have aspects of cognitive dyspraxia, such as difficulties with sequencing and structuring information and organizational skills.

A child may be diagnosed by a speech and language therapist to have developmental verbal dyspraxia, sometimes referred to as developmental articulatory dyspraxia or childhood apraxia of speech.

This is characterized by marked difficulties in producing speech sounds and in sequencing them together into words. In addition, such children will often have difficulty in making and coordinating the precise movements of the lips, tongue, and palate required to produce speech.

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Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain and can cause different types of seizures. Epilepsy has been reported to occur in up to 40 percent of people with ASD. Epilepsy often occurs at two peaks: early childhood and adolescence.

There are several genetic conditions associated with both epilepsy and ASD such as Rett syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and Tuberous sclerosis. The main treatment for epilepsy is anti-epileptic medicine, which helps stop or reduce the number of seizures.

Sleep Issues

Sleep issues are very common in children and adults with ASD. It is estimated up to 80 percent of people with ASD can have difficulty sleeping, waking early, or waking up frequently, and the cause remains unclear. Poor sleep can result in daytime tiredness, anxieties, and behavioral issues such as hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and aggression.

Medications and psychiatric issues can also affect sleep. Establishing a good bedtime routine and having a calming environment are encouraged to establish better sleep quality. Some studies suggest people with ASD may produce less melatonin: a sleep-related hormone. Discuss this with your pediatrician if necessary.

Other associated conditions with ASD include food allergies, asthma, eczema, headaches, Tourette’s syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, Depression, learning difficulties, speech delay, and gastrointestinal symptoms.

While research is ongoing, it remains unclear why people with ASD are more likely to experience one or more of these conditions. These associated conditions may be challenging to manage alongside autism.

Many children will require an individualized approach that meets the needs of ASD and any other associated condition. It is important to find out what works and what does not work individually in order to give them the support and treatment they need.

Quick tips for families:

  • Your child may be overwhelmed by sensory experiences all day. By understanding his/her difficulties, you can provide the right sensory experience and environment at home or school, which will make a huge difference to your child’s life.
  • If you are concerned about your child’s health, ask your doctor for a test, and for a second opinion, if necessary.
  • With a special needs child, you need to be ready to research and investigate all possible sources of help and support.
  • Visual aids can make a dramatic difference with children with special needs such as autism, speech impairment, and deafness.
  • It can be difficult for some people with autism to describe symptoms they may be experiencing.

Challenging behaviors, distress, and anxiety can stem from your child’s frustration at not being able to communicate symptoms of pain or discomfort.

This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD

May Ng

Professor May Ng, MBBS (Hons), FHEA, FRCPCH, MSc, LLM, PhD is a Consultant Paediatric Endocrinologist and Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. She completed her undergraduate degree under full scholarship at University of Sydney, Australia and her pediatric training in Australia and the United Kingdom. She was the recipient of the prestigious UK Medical Research Council Fellowship and completed further training to obtain a Masters in Medical Science and PhD degree in pediatric endocrinology and diabetes. Dr Ng also holds a Master of Laws degree and is active in medico-legal work. She is Chair of the UK Association of Children’s Diabetes Clinicians, Officer for British Society of Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes and Training Advisor for Royal College of Paediatrics. She is in the Diabetes UK Council for Healthcare Professionals and Online Learning Committee for European Society of Paediatric Endocrinology. She is an active researcher with over 150 publications and has presented at more than 150 scientific meetings. She serves on the editorial board for several international journals including as Editor-in-Chief and as Associate Editor and is a regular invited referee for many high impact journals. She is a clinical lead of multiple national award-winning initiatives such as University of Liverpool Alumni Award 2020, Diabetes UK Mary Mackinnon Award 2018, winner of 2015 Diabetes Quality in Care award, Highly Commended runner up for Diabetes Team of the Year National BMJ Awards 2015, finalist for the HSJ Clinical Leader of the year 2015 and finalist in the UK Asian Woman of Achievement Award 2016. She is also a book author of ‘A Journey with Brendan’ documenting life with her son with autism as both a mother and pediatrician. For more information visit my website. Twitter @mayng888.