Behavior problems in Autistic children are prevalent in all settings of their lives. These behavior problems effect education, ability to reason, social connections, family function, and on occasion complete strangers who love to make sure that parents receive their full measure of dissatisfaction with any circumstance. Educators are more tolerant, and behavior analysts are called in to examine the why’s and the what if’s, but even the seemingly terminated behavior issues arise again and again through alternative displays causing even more issues as they often fast-track to aggression.
There are many tools and interventions for behavior which are used, but they are ineffective when the primary reason for the onslaught of the aggressive behavior is unclear. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in 2011 may give caregivers insight into what emotions are triggering the undesired behavior. This study suggests that “adolescents with autism exhibit elevated levels of non-episodic compulsive behaviors, stereotypies, a wider range of fears and phobias, and are more likely to appear anxious in unfamiliar contexts” (Bradley, Ames & Bolton, 2011). This is interesting as we examine Autism and the confusing presentations of non-neurotypical reactions that plague these individuals. Is it possible that these responses are atypical in relation to an emotional response since the Autistic group “did not differ from the control group in the presentation of tics, self-injurious or self-restraining behaviors, or informant reports of anxiety” (Bradley, Ames, Bolton, 2011). Could there actually be a natural and logical reason for the impulsive behaviors, fears, anxieties, and phobias that are associated with neurological processes in Autism? Many theories are presented daily, but the implementation and results lack consistency.
A neurotypical adult might be plagued with the same anxieties, fear, obsessive compulsiveness, and phobias, just as the Autistic child is. There is no rational sense when these responses consume the individual. The difference between the two is that the adult is capable of explaining what is happening to them, and upon further examination, a clinician might recommend a prescription drug when there are findings of abnormal serotonin levels in the brain that are causing these irrational responses. Serotonin is a feel good chemical that promotes a general sense of well-being in the individual, and a lack of it, can cause this plethora of irrational presentations. What is even easier to understand is the precursor to serotonin in the brain, tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid obtained through food, and is responsible for the production of serotonin.
“Tryptophan uses the same means of transport into the brain as other amino acids, and has to compete against them to cross the blood-brain barrier. As it happens, tryptophan is the least abundant amino acid. Forced to fight for access against the more common amino acids, it’s left waiting at the gate: the amount of tryptophan entering the brain decreases” (Young & Leyton, 2002). Perhaps, what we are looking at when assessing the social behavior, aggression, irritability and obsessive-compulsive reactions in Autistic individuals is the lack of tryptophan in the diet. Autistic individuals are characteristically discriminant eaters, and it is only logical to assume that they are not consuming enough of these foods, and tryptophan exclusive foods are out of the question so there will always be that competition to bridge the blood-brain barrier.
Dr. Young concluded that, “studies with altered tryptophan levels show conclusively that such alterations can change mood and feelings and/or behavior related to irritability and aggression. The most plausible explanation for this is that serotonin does have a direct effect on mood, irritability and aggression. The relationship works in two different directions, with lowered serotonin resulting in more negative mood and/or behavior while increased serotonin levels have the opposite effect” (Young & Leyton, 2002).
When considering the overall behavior patterns in Autistic children such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), fears, phobias, and anxiety, it is important to note that “higher serotonin levels may be associated with more constructive social interactions” (Young & Leyton, 2002). We would be mistaken if we ignored research that was presented when Autism was not as widespread as it is today.
Bradley, E., Ames, C., & Bolton, P. (2011). Psychiatric conditions and behavioural problems in adolescents with intellectual disabilities: correlates with autism. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Revue Canadienne De Psychiatrie, 56(2), 102-109.
Young, S. N., & Leyton, M. (2002). The role of serotonin in human mood and social interaction: Insight from altered tryptophan levels. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 71(4), 857-865.