Electro-convulsive Therapy and Autism

CC BY-NC by Telstar Logistics

It sounds like a scene from a old-time horror movie – a child hooked up to a machine, shaking as it sends electrical currents through his brain. Years ago, electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) was used to treat a variety of mental disorders, from depression to schizophrenia, but many people assume that it’s gone the way of leeching or bleeding. It certainly isn’t viewed as a viable treatment for autism, until now.

Recent studies have shown that electro-convulsive therapy may be an effective treatment for patients with autism who suffer from extreme aggression and self-injurious behaviors. A study done by Wachtel, Jaffe and Kellner demonstrated the effectiveness of ECT in treating an 11-year-old boy who suffered from autism and bipolar affective disorder. The boy suffered from unpredictable mood swings, which resulted in aggressive behavior towards his caregivers and himself. Photos taken prior to treatment showed him with bloody hands and face from his self-abusing behaviors. When medication failed to help, his parents consented to try ECT.

ECT treatments were conducted three times per week, for a total of eight treatments. By the fourth treatment, the boy was able to attend school for the first time. Prior to treatment, he had been unable to attend school or interact with other children, and required two adult supervisors around him at all times due to “safety concerns.” After treatment, he was able to sleep through the night for the first time, and was even able to successfully spend five days away at summer camp.

Lee Wachtel has done extensive work on autism and the catatonic states that can appear in severe cases. She has contributed to several studies on the effectiveness of ECT, including one with Griffin, Dhossche, and Reti, documenting a 14-year-old patient with autism who exhibited symptoms of catatonia that were resistant to treatment. After ECT treatments, he was able to participate in sports, including basketball, running, swimming, and horseback riding. He was also able to make academic progress in a homeschooling program.

Another study by Nilsson, B.M., and Ekselius, L., published in Journal of ECT described a 38-year-old man with severe autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder that did not respond to medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. His health was restored after treatment with ECT.

ECT works by delivering an electrical current to the brain, which induces a seizure, causing the patient to temporarily lose consciousness. It has been shown to reduce psychiatric symptoms in some patients, though scientists are not certain why this occurs. Some theorize that it is linked to the brain’s neurotransmitters.

In order for ECT to be effective, patients must commit to a series of treatments. Side effects include memory loss, hallucinations, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.

There is currently no research on the long-term effects of ECT on children.

Obviously, ECT is used as a last-resort for patients who fail to respond to medical or behavioral therapies. Further research is needed to determine whether ECT is an effective treatment for autism spectrum disorders.