Autism and Catatonia

We’re all guilty of zoning out and daydreaming every now and then, but there is a condition linked to Autism which is so much more than that – it’s called Autism Related Catatonia. It can be a debilitating and life changing condition which can effect not only the person it’s happening to, but everyone around them.

So what is it?

Essentially, Catatonia is a complex neuro-psychological disorder which refers to a cluster of abnormalities in movement, volition, speech and behaviour. It presents gradually at first – affecting movement, speech and mobility.  It is a condition that affects between 12%-18% of the population with Autism.

Parents or carers may notice the following things:

  • catalepsy (a trance or seizure with a loss of sensation and consciousness accompanied by rigidity of the body)
  • waxy flexibility (a decreased response to stimuli and a tendency to remain in an immobile posture)
  • stupor (absence of spontaneous movement)
  • posturing
  • agitation (not influenced by external stimuli)
  • mutism
  • negativism (motiveless resistance to instructions or attempts to move, unplanned and without purpose)
  • stereotypy (restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviours)
  • grimacing
  • echolalia
  • echopraxia (involuntary repetition or imitation of another person’s actions)

Unfortunately, in many cases, it can be hard to diagnose, as many of these factors can also be present in a person who is Autistic. A medical professional will need to look at if the signs are being done voluntarily. As mentioned before, it can be really hard to diagnose, especially in those who are showing gradual signs, which can lead to it being misdiagnosed and mistreated.

The consequences of misdiagnosis of catatonia can have devastating effects on both the person with autism and the family. People experience:

  • a lack of empathy and support
  • wrong assumptions about the person
  • behaviors of concern dismissed as just being part of autism
  • unwillingness to review or cease psychiatric medications which could be contributing to catatonia
  • refusal of a request for further assessment or referral to a specialist
  • parents are heavily criticized
  • a lack of understanding that chronic catatonia can deteriorate to severe levels

The symptoms of autistic catatonia are much more severe. Individuals with autistic catatonia experience symptoms such as obsessive compulsions, repetitive purposeless behaviours, and unresponsiveness to the external world.

There are many trials currently being done to treat Catatonic Autism – this includes the use of benzodiazepines. ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) is also something that is used to combat Stupor. However, there is little research done on the short or long term side effects of these treatments. Psychological approaches to Catatonia are recommended, as stress, anxiety and side effects of Catatonia medication are usually the reasons behind a Catatonia/Autism breakdown.

This condition still needs so much research and funding into understanding it better and finding better treatments which are better understood – including side effects. For now, adults and children are given trial medication and are fighting to be understood and helped with this condition.

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