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Autism Associated With Early Institutionalization, High Intelligence, and Naturalistic Behavior Therapy in a 7-Year-Old Boy

Stein, David S. PsyD*; Welchons, Leah W. PhD*; Corley, Kara B. MS, CCC-SLP*; Dickinson, Hope MS, CCC-SLP*; Levin, April R. MD*; Nelson, Charles A. PhD*; Stein, Martin T. MD

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: January 2015 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 53–55
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000120
Challenging Case
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CASE: Paul is a 7-year-old boy with a history of cerebral palsy and left-side weakness secondary to perinatal injury. He was adopted to the United States at 19 months from a baby home in Eastern Europe, where the caregiver to child ratio was 7:1. Paul spent most of his early developmental period in a crib. On adoption, he was nonverbal and nonambulatory, but these skills developed within 1 year. Paul was noted at 4 years of age to be struggling socially and also to exhibit restricted interests (e.g., memorizing maps and world leaders). He was referred for neuropsychological testing at age 5 and was found to have cognitive skills in the gifted range (verbal intelligence quotient, IQ =143; 99.8%) but exhibited markedly reduced social reciprocity with high levels of restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, leading to a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the context of early institutionalization. Given his cooperative and attentive presentation, high IQ, and ability to imitate, Floortime, a more naturalistic behavioral therapy for ASD, was recommended rather than traditional applied behavior analysis, which is more commonly available in the region. In addition, Paul was provided with group speech and language therapy with a social/pragmatic focus. After 1 year, Paul's socialization improved but he struggled to initiate interactions and maintain friendships. He focused instead on his restricted interests and played alone. After 2 years of intervention, Paul presents as highly sociable with well-sustained eye gaze, interactive play, and successful friendships. Still, without direction and structure, Paul will happily draw maps for hours at a time. He is hyperlexic and working far above grade level across subjects. His mother now questions—is this still truly institutional autism or is he simply too intelligent to relate to same-age peers?

*Divisions of Developmental Medicine and Neurology and Center for Communication Enhancement, Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; and

Division of Child Development and Community Health, University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA.

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

© 2015 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins