Our previous installment in this series on autism and co-morbidity covered the prevalence of anxiety disorders in people with autism. There are several diagnoses within the anxiety umbrella, and many are common in individuals with autism. Some of the more prevalent diagnoses include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic disorder.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition characterized by persistent, obsessive thoughts and ritualistic compulsions. Someone with OCD may be plagued by unwanted, persistent thoughts, along with a compulsive need to complete certain rituals, such as repeatedly washing one’s hands or having to check the locks three times before leaving home.
People with autism are at a greater risk for OCD because they are already predisposed towards routine and ritualized behaviors. These behaviors cross over from autism into OCD when they become an obstacle to one’s quality of life.
OCD can be treated with a combination of SSRI medications and cognitive therapy. Patients with autism often benefit from sensory integration training, which eases the symptoms of sensory disorder and can ease obsessive thoughts and compulsions.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition where a person who has experienced a traumatic event experiences overwhelming physical and emotional symptoms that do not ease over time. PTSD is common in individuals who have experienced life-threatening events, such as war, car accidents, or victims of crime or abuse. Symptoms may include intrusive, upsetting memories, nightmares, panic attacks, and numbness.
People with autism, who are sensitive to their environment and tend to have difficulty relating to others, are at a higher risk for PTSD, for several reasons. Many have sensory issues that cause them to experience daily events more intensely than most. This, combined with communication difficulties and interpersonal struggles can raise the threshold for anxiety to a higher level. Unfortunately, many children with autism are also at a higher risk for abuse, which can lead to PTSD.
Panic disorder is a condition where an individual has a physical and emotional fear reaction to situations that normally would not induce panic. Episodes typically last several minutes or longer. They can occur at any time, without warning, and can be extremely debilitating. Physical symptoms include racing heart, sweating, rapid breathing, sweating or chills, dizziness, or stomach pain.
Many patients develop panic disorder as a result of PTSD, but this is not always the case. Some researcher believe that panic disorder may have a genetic component. Panic disorder can lead to other anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia, where the patient refuses to leave home or expose themselves to new environments or people.
Individuals with autism are at risk for panic disorders because navigating daily life is intrinsically more challenging for them. The combination of sensory and social difficulties can lead to embarrassing, and even dangerous situations, which can lead the individual to withdraw from unfamiliar situations.
Panic disorder is often treated with a combination of SSRI medications and psychotherapy.
To read other articles in this series on autism and co-morbidity click here