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Attached to a Diagnosis: The Quandary of Social Deficits and Reactive Attachment Disorder

Phelps, Randall MD, PhD*; Eisert, Debra PhD*; Schulz, Susan LCSW*; Augustyn, Marilyn MD

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: January 2012 - Volume 33 - Issue 1 - p 84–86
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e31823ff33e
Challenging Case

CASE: Alex is a 9-year-old boy brought to you, his primary care provider, for a “fifth opinion.” You have cared for Alex since he was adopted from a Romanian orphanage at 3 years of age. He has been physically healthy with normal growth parameters and no evidence of fetal alcohol syndrome. Alex has long-standing history of social difficulties, impulsivity, lying, controlling, manipulative behaviors, violent outbursts at home with subsequent lack of remorse, and excessive chatter. You referred Alex to an interdisciplinary child development clinic 2 years ago, where he was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He was noted to have normal cognitive and language skills. Attachment therapy, stimulant therapy, and school accommodations for ADHD were recommended.

Alex received some individual counseling with the school psychologist for a year after the first evaluation, with little improvement in core behaviors. The following year, Alex established care with a psychiatrist and a private counselor. The psychiatrist prescribed a succession of stimulants, each of which worked for only a short time and then had waning effect. The counselor worked with Alex and his parents on managing Alex's behavior, which the family reports has been somewhat helpful.

Alex's parents express great frustration and sadness that parenting Alex has been such an ongoing struggle since he was adopted. They note that Alex is superficially friendly, chatty, and charming, with everyone he encounters, including strangers, but he never progresses past such superficial interaction, even with his adoptive parents. The parents express that they are deeply wounded that Alex is not more loving and is not more appreciative of the fact that they rescued him from the orphanage.

His parents asked his pediatric clinician about Autism as they observe Alex's lack of real affection and social connection with parents or peers. They also note that Alex has difficulty verbalizing his feelings and that he lies frequently, chatters tangentially, and he can watch the Discovery channel for hours. A neurologist, to whom Alex was referred to evaluate staring spells, reassured the family that the spells did not seem to be epilepsy and also diagnosed Alex with “Asperger's syndrome.” The school psychologist, after 2 years of equivocation, recently made Alex eligible for autism spectrum services.

During the interview and examination, Alex is funny, friendly, and a bit silly. He uses normal eye contact, seems to enjoy the neuromotor examination, and is eager to show you his cool, new handshake. He engages in easy banter, using normal vernacular and prosody. After the visit, you call the therapist to express your opinion that the RAD diagnosis is valid after all and to ask whether the family is engaged in attachment therapy. The therapist refutes the RAD diagnosis, endorsing Asperger's syndrome (AS) instead and notes that Alex is making good progress in school and in therapy, where he is learning pragmatic skills and basic social skills with the use of social stories.

Where do you head next?

From the *Child Development and Rehabilitation Center, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR and †Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Medical Center, Boston, MA.

The next case is posted at for discussion on the Clinical Conversations blog.

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.