Some individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have additional neurodevelopmental, psychiatric, or medical conditions. These are sometime described as co-morbidities or co-morbid disorders, and they include attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder, sleep difficulties, selective eating disorders, depression, seizures and gastrointestinal complications. Not every person with autism has some- or any- of these conditions, but they are more common among people with autism than in the general population.
Understanding how these conditions are related to ASD biologically and how they interact with ASD is important to clinicians since some of the symptoms of co-morbid disorders can worsen symptoms of ASD, and it may be easier to target some of the symptoms associated with ASD when other co-morbid disorders are also treated. Current CAR projects looking at co-occurring conditions include:
Attention + ASD
- Studies aimed at developing better treatment approaches for individuals with ADHD and autism, since many traditional ADHD treatments are not effective for those on the spectrum.
- Adapting a successful treatment of verbal and physical aggression for use with individuals with autism and ADHD and their families, which supports individuals with autism to develop self-advocacy skills in order to work through frustrating situations at home and beyond.
- Understanding how attention and memory skills during adolescence predict self-care skills and independence in adulthood in order to better support transition to adulthood
Anxiety + ASD
- Understanding the difference between traditional anxiety disorders and the types of anxiety seen in individuals with ASD. For too long anxiety around transitions, routines, and unusual fears have been dismissed as just “part of autism” and gone untreated. CAR’s work has put forth new theories about the role of anxiety in autism and how to identify it more accurately, making it possible to design more effective clinical trials and interventions.
- CAR studies are discovering that children with ASD + anxiety have increased activity in the part of the brain known to respond to fear—the amygdala. This increased activity is not seen in individuals with ASD alone. Ultimately, this finding may be the earliest evidence that there are meaningful, biologically distinct subgroups in ASD for which we can optimize treatment.
Depression + ASD
- CAR researchers are working with adults with autism to better understand issues related to depression and quality of life for individuals on the spectrum, in order to inform clinical treatment and support.
Selective Eating + ASD
CAR researchers are working to develop an intervention to help children with ASD expand the number of foods they will accept in order to support improved nutrition and quality of life for families.