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Weekly Autism Tips for Emergency Responders: Co-existing Conditions

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Children with an autism diagnosis often have more concurrent medical and psychological or mental health conditions than their non-autistic counterparts. Because of this, they are also more likely to use EMS and healthcare services.

Learning to recognize the signs and behaviors of autism in a patient can be challenging enough; adding medical complications to the mix can further complicate the call. Approximately one third of patients with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have seizures.

According to a guest post on by epidemiologist Laura Schieve, Ph.D., at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, her study concluded that children with autism, ADHD or other developmental delays were:

  • 8 times more likely than children without developmental disabilities to have ever had an asthma diagnosis,

    6 times more likely to have had eczema or a skin allergy during the past year,

    8 times more likely to have had a food allergy during the past year,

    2 times more likely to have had frequent severe headaches or migraines during the past year, and

    5 times more likely to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year.

    Children with autism were twice as likely as children with ADHD or other delays to have had frequent diarrhea or colitis during the past year and were seven times more likely to have experienced these gastrointestinal problems than were children without any developmental disability.

Other co-existing conditions commonly found with autism are tic disorders, like Tourette Syndrome, Attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD), Obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD), sleep disorders and mood disorders.

Obesity is another common issue, mostly due to poor trunk development, picky eating habits and decreased physical activity.

Medications, Pain Management and Field Impression

When in the field, be aware that standard dosages of medication for pain control may be ineffective for patients with autism. Be careful when relying on “outcome-based” pain management, as higher dosing may result in unintentional overdose.

Your patient with autism may also exhibit uncommon side effects or adverse reactions to routine drugs, and they may be on uncommon medications that may have interaction with drugs given in the pre-hospital setting.

Remember that it is not your job to diagnose an autism spectrum disorder or try to differentiate it from other conditions. The goal of learning to identify autism is solely to form a working impression that will help you use more appropriate assessment and treatment strategies. As always, you should treat the patient, not the diagnosis.

You should also always consider that there is a medical reason for the behavior, as stroke, brain injury, seizures and hypoglycemia may present with similar signs and behaviors. DO NOT IGNORE LIFE-THREATS just because your patient has autism or you suspect they do.