Title: Characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorders who received services through community mental health centers.
Authors: Stephanie A. Bryson, Susan K. Corrigan, Thomas P. Mcdonald, and Cheryl Holmes
Source: Autism 2008 12: 65-82. (January).

I apologize for the lack of posts since Friday. I was in Washington at a National Institutes of Health round table discussion on research in childhood-onset disorders. Although the meeting was focused on child depression, there are several issues that were debated that apply to Autism research and I will post some observations later this week.

This is the second part of my summary of the Kansas community mental health study. Please see the previous post for some background and basic description of the methodology. As you may remember, the authors compared children with autism to children with other ASD, all of whom had received services at community mental health centers in Kansas. The researchers explored differences in a variety of demographic factors but they were most interested in examining differences in rates of co-morbid disorders. Here are their basic findings: Children with PDD and Asperger’s, when compared to children with autism, had higher rates of co-morbid ADHD, Depressive Disorders, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Bi-Polar Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Children with Asperger’s and PDD were also more likely to have experienced a psychiatric hospitalization. Yet, children with Autism were more likely to receive special education services than children with other ASDs.

Brief Commentary: The authors discussed some possible interpretations of the data, and I want to reiterate one major point. At least 2 things may be at play here. It is possible that children with PDD and Asperger’s do in fact experience higher rates of these disorders. Some of the findings are consistent with our current understanding of ASDs. For example, some researchers have characterized the differences between Asperger’s and Autism (especially high functioning autism) to be mostly related to differences in social desirability. The basic premise is that children with Asperger’s HAVE a desire for social interactions and relationships with peers, but they have social limitations that make it difficult for them to develop such social interactions. One the other hand, children with autism are believed to lack an “explicit or apparent” desire to establish and maintain relationships with peers. This limited social desirability may actually be “protective” for depression and other disorders in children with Autism; while the apparent social affiliation needs of children with Asperger’s, coupled with their social limitations, may lead to higher levels of frustration and possibly more emotional distress. HOWEVER, the results may also be a byproduct of our clinical diagnostic practices. There are many reasons why clinicians may provide a co-morbid diagnosis. In my own clinical experience, most often a second diagnosis is provided only when such diagnosis serves a function that helps the child. For example, up to 70% of children with autism score in the mental retardation range of standard IQ tests, yet most kids with Autism do not receive a second diagnosis of Mental Retardation. Why? Because it serves no purpose (in addition to other theoretical consideration). However, I have seen children receive a second diagnosis of MR when such diagnosis served a purpose, such as allowing the family and child to receive extended services, insurance coverage, etc. Thus it is possible that the differences in diagnoses observed by the researchers are not differences in ACTUAL rates of the disorders but instead in the relevant utility of providing a co-morbid diagnosis to children with PDD, Asperger’s, and Autism.

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