When a Child Unexpectedly Draws a Violent Scene

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CASE: Carter is a 12-year-old boy who has been seeing a developmental-behavioral pediatrician since the age of 7 years for problems with behavioral regulation. Around that time, he began to receive special education services after an educational assessment of autism. He has average intellectual abilities, with below-average semantic-pragmatic speech (e.g., conversations are one-sided). His medical diagnoses included attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), combined presentation, and generalized anxiety disorder. He has never met the DSM criteria for autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) because although he has atypical sensory behaviors (e.g., preoccupied with sniffing objects), he has otherwise lacked restricted, repetitive behaviors. Other medical problems include obesity.His functional impairments associated with impulsivity, inattention, and anxiety improved with combined pharmacotherapy (a long-acting stimulant and a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor [SSRI], on which he remains) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). After starting sixth grade, his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) was modified to address his social impairments, with a self-contained classroom without windows. Soon thereafter, he began to talk about “hating myself” and developed mild-to-moderate depression, which improved after several weeks of a higher dose of SSRI and more frequent visits with his therapist.Several weeks after starting seventh grade, the teacher sent an email to Carter's parents, which they forwarded to his developmental-behavioral pediatrician: “Carter drew a picture of himself shooting and stabbing a student he was mad at today (Fig. 1). He was very upset when I told him I was going to tell you. We haven't processed it through yet but I think a conversation at home about appropriate drawings and using other ways to calm down would help this not happen again.”

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