Conference Coverage

Abrupt behavior changes in autism? ID medical triggers first


 

EXPERT ANALYSIS FROM the PSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY UPDATE INSTITUTE

NEW YORK – When treating children with autism spectrum disorder who develop an abrupt increase in symptoms, it is best to identify and treat the precipitating event or events – rather than intensify ASD drug therapy, an expert said.

“These acute behavior changes are almost always triggered by something,” Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, MD, reported at a pediatric psychopharmacology update held by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Triggers are not always identifiable, but Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele said solutions may prove simple when they are.

Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele Director, Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, Columbia University, New York City Ted Bosworth/Frontline Medical News

Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele

From a library of examples, Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele recounted one case in which a highly verbal 10-year-old boy unexpectedly exhibited a sudden onset of highly aggressive behavior, including threats of harm to others and suicide. After asking a long list of questions designed to identify recent changes in the boy’s life, Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele learned the child recently had sprained his ankle. His mother had not provided any anti-inflammatory medication or analgesics because she was concerned that it might interact with her son’s aripiprazole regimen. “The child was in pain. That was the reason for his irritation and agitation,” said Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele, the director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University, New York.

“We didn’t need to increase his dose of aripiprazole. We treated his pain, and he got better.”

In ASD patients with an acute change in behavior, caregivers typically think first of environmental triggers, including adverse interactions with peers or siblings. But Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele emphasized that medical problems should be considered first. This makes sense because of the importance of quickly resolving health problems. However, pain and discomfort, particularly in those with difficulty verbalizing these complaints, can be overlooked.

Moreover, even highly verbal ASD patients may not volunteer physical complaints without prompting, Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele said. Among the health issues in children, constipation and other gastrointestinal issues are “incredibly common” in ASD patients. Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele looks for clues, such as body posturing suggesting abdominal pain or flatulence, when a history is ambiguous.

“I will order an abdominal flat plate when I hear enough symptoms to make me wonder when the family is not sure,” Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele reported. “Almost always it comes back with evidence of constipation. We treat it, and they are less irritable like all of us would be.”

All common conditions in a pediatric population, including ear infections, dental caries, and food allergies, should be considered, according to Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele, who recommended a practice pathway for evaluating triggers in children with ASD (Pediatrics. 2016 Feb;137 Suppl 2:S136-48). A coauthor on this pathway, Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele emphasized the importance of pursuing a systematic approach to medical issues before considering other triggers, such as psychosocial stressors.

In adolescents, headache caused by migraine and late-onset epilepsy, often in the form of complex partial seizures, should be added to the list of potential triggers for irritation or aggression, Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele said. Epilepsy often precedes the diagnosis of ASD in young children, and Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele noted that a second peak incidence sometimes occurs in late adolescence.

After ruling out medical problems, helping patients recognize and verbalize stressors can serve as both diagnosis and treatment. In ASD patients with limited verbal skills who are suffering from stress, “aggression is one form of communication,” Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele said.

However, Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele cautioned that, even if a trigger is successfully addressed, inadvertently reinforced aggression might persist.

“Aggression can be rewarded sometimes by removing the patient from the classroom, sometimes by giving in, and then that becomes a maladaptive reinforcement pattern that needs to be broken,” Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele said. “Even if you are treating their irritability and agitation with, say, risperidone, you still need to break the maladaptive reinforcement pattern or they will keep engaging in what has become instrumental aggression.”

Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele reported financial relationships with Hoffmann-La Roche, Novartis, Seaside Therapeutics, and SynapDx.

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