Question: What medical conditions are commonly faced by individuals with autism, and what should I do if a family member with autism has a medical emergency?
Answer: Medical issues of children with autism spectrum disorder can be confusing because oftentimes children and adults with autism are not able to communicate well about their pain or discomfort, in terms of what's causing the discomfort, where it is, or even if they are in pain.
Many of our children have gastrointestinal problems, which might be mild to another child, but which are quite disturbing to children with autism due to their disordered sensory processing. For example, mild constipation may not even bother another child, but may keep an autistic child up at night. Or gastro esophageal reflux may cause them to have severe self-injurious behavior because they're experiencing such discomfort.
The other main area of medical concern for our children are sleep disorders. Oftentimes, our children have difficulty falling asleep at night or waking up at night and staying awake for many hours, which can lead to difficulties for the entire family. Sometimes melatonin can help with falling asleep at night and sometimes it can help night-wakening, but this is a very big challenge for our families.
If your family member has a medical emergency, it is important for you or the emergency physician to contact the clinician who knows the most about your child's autism to help to explain different aspects of their clinical condition to the emergency physician.
The difficulty is that sometimes children with medical problems will have behaviors that the emergency physician might ascribe to their autism when they are in fact manifestations of another difficulty, or illness. It would be a good idea, especially for a child who is non-verbal, to wear a medical alert bracelet, or affix it to a shoe, or even to have a tracking chip affixed to a shoe so that you can locate your child in an emergency.