Autism Spectrum Disorder and Mental Health Comorbidity Leading to Prolonged Inpatient Admission

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CASE:Sam is a 6-year-old boy with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who recently relocated and has an appointment with you, his new pediatric clinician, to establish care. He was previously followed by a psychiatrist for 2 years for additional diagnoses of insomnia, bipolar disorder, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and intellectual disability. He has tried and (apparently) failed multiple psychotropic trials including stimulants, nonstimulants, mood stabilizers, atypical antipsychotics, and nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics. He has a delayed sleep onset and frequent night awakenings each night for the past 3 months, during which he “screams, cries, and thrashes and can stay up for over an hour.” His behaviors are described as irritable, self-injurious, and aggressive with no clear pattern of triggers according to his mother. He is nonverbal and communicates by leading and rarely pointing. The patient's current medication regimen includes clonidine 0.2 mg at night, lorazepam 1.5 mg as needed at night, olanzapine 5 mg twice daily, and diphenhydramine as needed for sleep/agitation. His mother is concerned that he is developing “tolerance” to the regimen and wants to wean him off some of the medications. His mother is struggling to take care of the patient given his worsening behavior and body habitus (body mass index >99%; z = 3.41).There is a family history of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and autism. He has a 3-year-old sister, who is also diagnosed with ASD, though she is not as severely impacted. His mother's partner recently moved in along with 2 children of his own, aged 3 and 4 years. Sam attends a specialized school, where he receives behavior therapy and occupational therapy. He has undergone inpatient pediatric hospitalization twice, 1 time for 3 weeks and the other for 6 days, for aggressive behavior, and in both instances, he was discharged before inpatient psychiatric placement because of a lack of available beds.After urgent consultation with your local developmental and behavioral pediatrician, a slight reduction was made in the lorazepam because of concerns about tolerance and side effects. However, within a week of this, he was brought to the emergency department for continued self-injurious behavior and increased trouble with sleeping. His mother voiced concerns about his safety in the home, which were particularly related to aggression toward his younger sister. He was admitted to the pediatric inpatient floor for observation, and medication adjustment (increasing olanzapine), which was initially helpful in improving behavior, but mostly behavioral/environmental strategies were used to soothe him, including frequent wagon rides through the hospital corridors.Despite the patient being stable from the medical standpoint, Sam's mother did not feel comfortable taking him home. Social work contacted local community mental health services to pursue outpatient resources and respite care options and sought inpatient pediatric psychiatry. After several failed attempts to find placement, he remained in pediatric inpatient care for 1 and a half months with no acute medical interventions other than his oral medications.He was finally accepted to the in-state pediatric psychiatric facility when a bed was available. During his week-long stay, he had further medication adjustments with a decrease in olanzapine and optimization of his clonidine dose. During his psychiatric hospital stay, care coordination succeeded in arranging center-based applied behavior analysis interventions and respite care and parent training for his family. Sam began to show improvement in his overall agitation and aggression, requiring less clonazepam, and his mother then maintained outpatient follow-up.The day before discharge, you visit him in the hospital, and a medical student asks you why he was in the hospital for so long. How would you answer the question?

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