Dual Diagnosis – Down Syndrome and Austism Spectrum Disorder

Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder – There is little written in the form of research, medical or otherwise, about Down Syndrome (DS) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) being related. Until recently, it was commonly believed that the two diagnosis did not, and  could not,  exist together.

Parents of children with DS were often told their  child also had a severe cognitive impairment and no further testing or intervention was suggested or provided.

An online article by George T. Capone, M.D states that:

‘Today, the medical profession recognizes that people with Down syndrome may also have a psychiatric-related diagnosis such as ASD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).’

Early recognition and diagnosis of ASD  in children with DS allows the family to better understand the needs of  their child  in regards to therapeutic and educational assistance which is available for both conditions. Early recognition of DS  is easy in comparison to an ASD.

This is due to the fact that DS  can be definitely and readily diagnosed with a blood test, genetic marking and facial features.  ASD  is diagnosed subjectively.  There are no blood test or genetic marking tests. A diagnosis is made depending on observed behavior.

Bonnie Patterson, MD is a developmental pediatrician at the Cincinnati Center of Developmental Disabilities and the Director of the Down Syndrome Clinic. She believes that professionals are often hesitant to give parents a second serious development disorder diagnosis.

She states in her article, Dual Diagnoses: the Importance of Diagnosis and Treatment that medical science has for decades believed that atypical language and behavior development in children with Down Syndrome were due to profound mental retardation.  Dr. Patterson believes that the medical profession was “protecting parents” by not giving a second diagnosis.

Through her experience Dr. Patterson has found that the majority of children with autism spectrum disorder and down syndrome are not severely retarded. They function in a moderate to sever range of cognitive delay. Parents have been relieved to have the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder along with down syndrome as it offers them a better explanation of their childs behavior.  Understanding that a child has a dual diagnosis of Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder allows parents, doctors and schools to obtain appropriate intervention services and therapies.

Children with DS-ASD were more likely to have: developmental regression including loss of language and social skills, poor communication skills,  disruptive behaviors (biting, and head hitting or banging), repetitive motor behaviors (grinding teeth, hand flapping, and rocking), odd vocalizations (grunting or humming), unusual sensory responsiveness (spinning,  or sensitivity to certain sounds). Children with DS-ASD also show an increase in anxiety, irritability, difficulty with transitions, hyperactivity, attention problems and sleep disturbances.

With this new and continued research medical professionals are hoping to gain a greater understanding of DS and ASD. In doing so, this will help reduce barriers of diagnosis and improve access to medical and educational therapy and intervention at an early age.

Contributed by Mary Alexa Norris, teacher and writer with a passion for empowering those on the autism spectrum and with special needs.