Links Between Autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder


What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

The American Psychiatric Association’s features clinical definition for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder classifies it on a spectrum with a “presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both.” The obsessive-compulsive spectrum consists of varied behaviors, like thoughts, urges and impulses that persist repeatedly over time. These thoughts, urges and impulses are defined as obsessions. Although the word “obsession” is used pretty freely, an obsession as a symptom is much more serious. An obsession holds so much power over someone with OCD that they cannot function optimally. If someone experiences an uncontrollable obsession they need to make a conscious effort to avoid the subject of their obsession. There are different ways people distract themselves, but with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the person may develop compulsions to provide some relief from repeatedly fending away constant urges.

These compulsions are not the only way for someone with OCD to relieve stress, but they are usually harmless at a glance. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors someone exhibits, feeling the need to relieve stress. The act can be double checking, washing hands, repeating words to themselves or any other repeatable action. These all seem minor, but to the person experiencing the compulsions, every detail is important. They confine themselves to strict rules and practices. Again, compulsions are not dangerous on the surface, but if someone uses compulsions to relieve stress from all of their problems, they will never actually be able to resolve conflicts. This form of stress relief only works internally, doing nothing about external problems.

Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Psychiatry department published an article detailing symptoms of OCD and its prevalence. The study was long term and tracked the paths of reported cases throughout lifetimes. They found most cases of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder change during one’s life. It is rare, but people can make huge strides to where it barely affects them. In other cases, compulsions come in waves, sometimes depending on stress levels.

There are about a half of a million American children and teens who have been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. According to the National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom, a large portion of people with ASD have OCD. OCD is typically comorbid, meaning it occurs alongside another form of mental illness. The International OCD Foundation cites studies that record 92% of people with OCD have at least one other mental illness. Autism Spectrum Disorder is one of the illnesses that is commonly comorbid with OCD.

Comorbitiy is the simultaneous presence of multiple chronic illnesses. Autism has several other conditions that regularly co-exist with it in someone. A peer reviewed study, archived in the US National Library of Medicine, found significant links between OCD and ASD. Data from the sample population includes all Danish citizens born between January 1, 1955 and December 1, 2006, because researchers used their populations parental history too. The study concludes that anyone diagnosed with Autism from this sample was twice as likely to be diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People with an Obsessive-Compulsive diagnosis had four times more of a chance of being diagnosed with Autism.

The reason both are not really diagnosed simultaneously are the amount of commonalities in diagnostic criteria. Both conditions display repeated behaviors, and they often cause outbursts. There is also some evidence to prove that people with Autism have a genetic predisposition to develop OCD.

Telling the Difference Between ASD and OCD Symptoms

There are several ways to distinguish between symptoms of ASD and OCD. According to the International OCD Foundation, common symptoms may include “Lack of insight, General inability to emotionally and socially connect, angry outbursts, frequent, extreme and unpredictable changes in mood,” and finally, “Impulsivity.” Repetitive behaviors are also difficult to distinguish between, in terms of the diagnosis. The key difference between Autism and OCD is level of mindfulness someone has when acting out an obsessive behavior. If Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder drives the behavior, there is conscious reasoning behind the compulsions. In the person’s mind, these compulsions relieve tension from external stress. Autism’s repetitions are unconscious and unintentional.

Compulsions in someone with Autism also take a different path than the one caused by OCD. They are less permanent for children with Autism. The child may grow out of the behavior like or develop other compulsions. For Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, obsessions are persistent, so compulsions do not go away. They can be managed, but someone’s condition with OCD can worsen because of mental exhaustion from fighting off impulses. Intensified obsessions are harder to manage and can be crippling.

Treating Comorbid Conditions

To no surprise, OCD co-existing alongside Autism makes treatment more difficult. People with Autism and OCD both are disconnected socially and emotionally. Communication becomes nearly impossible without being completely understood, and your child will most likely have trouble communicating what they are feeling to others.

There is also an aspect of unpredictability to each condition. The symptoms and degrees to which people experience them vary from case to case, and they can change over time. There are treatments and medication for both, which can manage OCD obsessions, but the medication does not help with ASD symptoms. It can take away one problem, but there is no certainty about how the medication will affect the patient. Maybe more symptoms could have been attributed to Autism or the patient might have to experience side-effects. That makes knowing what the roots of your child’s symptoms are crucial for getting proper treatment.

Aspire Child & Family Services offers treatment for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder and comorbid manifestations of both. Call (267) 388-0607 if you think your child could be showing signs of one or both of these diagnoses. Our expert team will take any necessary time to make the correct diagnosis. There are fine lines across all diagnoses, so we will sift through whatever background and test results necessary to figure out your child’s best treatment options. The American Psychological Association has plenty of resources from years of studies. We make sure they are strictly reference tools. Using other cases for someone can only give us reference points, but Aspire CFS wants to learn about the individual’s needs and deficits so they can be addressed.

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