Medication Considerations

What do you do when your doctor recommends medication? In this month’s ASAT feature, Megan Atthowe, RN, MSN, BCBA, offers insight on a variety of approaches parents can take when medication is recommended for children exhibiting aggressive behaviors. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!


My son with autism has developed aggressive behavior, and his doctor is considering whether medication could help. What can I do to prepare for this conversation?
Answered by Megan Atthowe, RN, MSN, BCBA

doctor-563428_960_720First, you should know that there is no medication that specifically treats autism. Medications approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for other conditions can be useful only to lessen symptoms. That said, off-label use of pharmaceuticals is by no means unique to autism and is common practice for many health conditions. So while research on the use of particular psychotropic medications in the autistic population is growing, our body of knowledge is still limited. In addition, medications can and do affect every individual differently, and children can respond differently as they develop, so it is likely to take time to find the best medication at the appropriate dose. Medication management, in other words, is a complex and an ongoing process and one that is highly individualized. It is a good idea, then, to be prepared with the right information before every visit to your health care provider.

Do you know how often the aggression actually occurs? Bringing data like this to the visit can be very helpful. You may want to ask your son’s teachers to share any information they have about the aggression with your health care provider, too. (They would need your consent to talk with him/her or to share any confidential information such as behavior data.) If you have not been keeping track of the aggression, now is a good time to start, even if there are only a few days until your visit. An easy way to do this is to use a calendar. Record specifics about when the aggression happens, what the behavior is like, how long it lasts, and whether you have noticed any recent changes. It is difficult for anyone to recall these details accurately, especially if the behaviors happen frequently, so writing them down will help you to share the most meaningful information you can with your health care provider. If your son’s school team is not already collecting data, perhaps they should start as well.

In addition to information about the current levels of the behavior, be prepared to describe how the school and your family are addressing the behavior and how long that plan has been in place. Has your son’s team considered or tried Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to treat the behavior? Research supports ABA as an effective intervention for decreasing problem behaviors such as aggression as well as for teaching children with autism new skills. It is important to be sure that a qualified behavior analyst is supervising any ABA interventions, as they must be implemented correctly to be effective. Your health care provider may be able to refer you to a local ABA provider, or you can find a list of board certified behavior analysts at the Behavior Analysis Certification Board’s website.

Before your visit, prepare a list of the names and doses of any medications your son takes, as well as any over-the-counter medications, vitamins, or other supplements. If your son receives other therapies, share what they are with your health care provider. He or she will want to ensure that any new medication is safe to take and will not interact with other medications.

If you and your health care provider decide to start your son on a medication, decide what the goal is. How will you know when the medication has been effective? How will you know if it is ineffective? Be specific and write the goal down. Schedule a date when you will check in with your health care provider on your son’s progress. He or she may have specific suggestions about what type of data to keep.
Finally, there are some important questions that you should have the answers to before you leave. Make sure that you ask any questions you have—a responsible health care provider will want to know that you understand how to use the new medication correctly. If you think of questions later, do not hesitate to call and ask your physician, nurse, or pharmacist.

Key Questions:

  • What is the name of the medication?
  • What is the medication used for?
  • When and how should I give it to my son, and how much do I give?
  • Should I give this medication with food?
  • What effects should I expect to see?
  • What are common side effects?
  • How long will it be until I notice the desired effects and side effects
  • What side effects are serious, and what should I do if I notice them?
  • Will side effects lessen over time?
  • Is there anything I should avoid giving my son while he is on this medication?
  • If I decide that I would like to stop giving him the medication, what should I do?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?

Please note that there is information about research related to medications elsewhere on the ASAT website.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Atthowe, MSN, RN, BCBA, LBA, is a registered nurse and behavior analyst who has worked with people with autism and other special needs in educational, home, and healthcare settings for over 15 years. Currently she consults to educational teams who serve students with autism in public schools.

“Cooperating with Dental Exams” – Strategies for Parents, by Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA

This month’s featured article from ASAT is by the Associate Director of the New Haven Learning Centre in Toronto Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA, on several research-based strategies for parents to encourage cooperative behavior in their children with ASD during routine dental visits. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

My daughter with autism was very resistant during her first dental visit. Are there any steps we can take to help her tolerate a dental exam? We were actively involved in her home-based early intervention program for the last two years and have a working knowledge of ABA. Our daughter’s program is overseen by a board certified behavior analyst.

Answered by Jennifer Hieminga, MEd, BCBA
Associate Director, New Haven Learning Centre, Toronto, Canada

Boy Dental VisitFor many individuals with autism, routine appointments such as medical, dental and haircuts can be extremely difficult to tolerate. There are many factors that may contribute to this intolerance such as novel environments, novel adults, novel or aversive sounds, bright lights, foreign tastes, painful sensations, sitting for long periods of time and physical touch. As a result, many children with autism display noncompliant or avoidant behavior in response to these stimuli or events. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research published in peer-reviewed journals describing effective strategies to target dental toleration. Several different behavior interventions and programs have been used to increase an individual’s tolerance or proximity to an avoided stimulus or event, such as a dental exam. For example, the use of escape and reward contingent on cooperative dental behavior was shown to be effective for some individuals (Allen & Stokes, 1987; Allen, Loiben, Aleen, & Stanley, 1992). Non-contingent escape, in which the child was given periodic breaks during the dental exam, was also effective in decreasing disruptive behavior (O’Callaghan, Allen, Powell, & Salama, 2006). Other strategies such as using distraction and rewards (Stark et al., 1989), providing opportunities for the individuals to participate in the dental exam (Conyers et al., 2004), and employing systematic desensitization procedures (Altabet, 2002) have been shown to be effective. Most recently, Cuvo, Godard, Huckfeldt, and Demattei (2010) used a combination of interventions including, priming DVD, escape extinction, stimulus fading, distracting stimuli, etc. The board certified behavior analyst overseeing your daughter’s program is likely familiar with these procedures.

Clinical practice suggests that dental exams can indeed be modified to teach children with autism component skills related to dental exams (Blitz & Britton, 2010). However, a major challenge to implementing such skill-acquisition programs is the reduced opportunities to actually target these skills. One highly effective way to address this is to create a mock dental exam scenario in your home, as it provides opportunities to teach and practice the skills consistently and frequently. These scenarios should emulate, as best as possible, an actual dental office (e.g., similar tools, sounds, light, reclining chair), making it easier for the skills mastered in the mock teaching scenario to generalize to the dental office exam later on.

Developing a “Cooperates with a Dental Exam” Program
Following is a detailed example of the components involved with creating and implementing a “Cooperates with a dental exam” program.

  1. Speak to your family dentist to identify all the components of the exam with which your child will be required to participate.
  2. Based on the dentist’s input, develop a detailed task analysis outlining each step of the dental exam. See sample task analysis provided in the next section below.
  3. Collect necessary materials required for the exam. Many of these items may be obtained or borrowed from your dentist and may include:
    • Reclining chair (e.g., lazy boy)
    • Dental bib
    • Flouride foam dental plates
    • Electric Toothbrush with round head (to ensure polishing)
    • Dental mask
    • Dental mirror
    • Plastic gloves
    • X-ray plates
    • Flossing pics
  4. Take baseline data to determine your child’s ability to cooperate with each step of the exam and to identify skills that need to be taught. For example, baseline data may indicate there is a skill deficit with tolerating novel noises at the dentist and not with the exam itself. In this situation, a specific program for tolerating novel sounds found in the dental office should be introduced. It cannot be overstated that an intervention to address this area would need to be individualized. However, for the purpose of this reply it will be assumed that your daughter presents with difficulty in all, or the majority of the steps involved in a dental exam.
  5. Lastly, before starting the program, establish highly-potent reinforcers which your daughter will access for correctly responding within this program, and collect the items that you will need to teach this skill.

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