Update on Findings in Autism Studies

I’d like to highlight two reports that I found highly relevant to the autism community. 

First, a study published by Dr. Antonio Hardan of the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital found that an anti-oxidant supplement, N-Acetylcysteine, might be an effective therapy for some symptoms of autism.  Researchers found that this anti-oxidant lowered irritability in children with autism as well as reducing their repetitive behaviors.  These behaviors included throwing, kicking and hitting.  The pilot study involved 31 children with autism, 3 to 12 years of age.  This was a double blind study with half the children receiving a placebo for 12 weeks and the other children receiving N-Acetylcysteine.  These findings must be confirmed in a larger trial before the supplement can be recommended for children with autism.

I was very interested in this study because I had worked with Dr. Hardan during his tenure at the John Merck program at Western Psychiatric in Pittsburgh, PA.  I found him to be a psychiatrist with great insight into the use of behavioral and pharmacological intervention in treating children with autism. 

The behaviors that the anti-oxidant appeared to decrease are those that we find are the most challenging in both the home and the school setting.  I will continue to monitor further developments.

Next, in a recent “The Doctors Are In” web chat, the Autism Speaks Head of Medical Research, Joe Horrigan, M.D., a clinical child and adolescent psychiatrist, addressed a question regarding separating out compulsions that are part of OCD and those that are part of autism.  He explained that the obsessions that are part of OCD are ego/dystonic or unwelcome/unwanted.  However, persons with ASD find their obsessions interesting or comforting.   Their obsessions may be behaviors that help the person cope with his or her anxieties.  Persons with ASD will also engage in compulsions/repetitive behaviors when they are under-stimulated or need to feel calm. 

This explanation was the first time that I truly understood the difference between OCD and the compulsions a person with autism may have.  Ryan has many OCD-like behaviors but I never knew whether they were part of his autism or simply another challenge he faced.  Now I can appreciate his heightened anxiety levels when he engages in these compulsions.  Hopefully I can help him learn how to alleviate his anxieties in other less obtrusive ways.

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