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Challenging Case Blog

Viewpoints from the interdisciplinary leaders in optimal developmental and behavioral health for all children.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Diagnostic Uncertainty in a Complex Young Man: Autism Versus Psychosis
James is a 7½-year-old boy born in Vietnam to a mother with mental illness. Little is known about his early history; he spent the first 6 months of his life in an orphanage, followed by foster care and a disrupted adoption. He moved to the U.S. at age 1½ and joined his current adoptive family at age 4 years. Shortly thereafter, James' psychiatric nurse practitioner diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Pragmatic language and syntax deficits were also noted from an early age.

James is now exhibiting anxiety, perseverative beliefs, and regression in his toileting. He began “talking to himself in his room” and using neologisms. A school-based evaluation resulted in educational diagnoses of ADHD and ASD based on social disconnectedness and invading others' personal space. James' parents felt “something else was going on” and sought a second opinion with a multidisciplinary team (consisting of a pediatric psychologist and a developmental pediatrician). Considering James' history, previous assessments, and their assessment battery (Behavior Assessment System for Children, Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, and Rorschach Inkblot Test), the team characterized his current symptoms as an emerging psychotic disorder.

Several consultations occurred over the next 9 months of the school term. First, clinicians in the psychiatry department confirmed symptoms of functional decline, cognitive disorganization, and hallucinations, which were attributed to post-traumatic stress rather than a psychotic disorder. Second, adding to the diagnostic uncertainty, when James started an atypical antipsychotic medication and was under good symptom control, the school team believed that ADHD—not psychosis—best accounted for his presentation. There was significant contention between the medical team and consulting school psychologist regarding the extent to which data from the parental history and Rorschach should be considered in formulating the patient's diagnosis.

Two-and-a-half years later, James was weaned off risperidone to manage a new side effect of tics. He subsequently manifested significant paranoia with reactive aggression toward peers for imagined slights and insults that he could “swear he heard.” A different school-contracted psychologist's re-evaluation corroborated the diagnosis of schizophrenia based on the several years of unfolding clinical observations. Acting from the supposition that early-onset psychosis was too rare and too stigmatizing a condition to apply to a “kid who's just having trouble paying attention,” the first school psychologist remained adamant that ADHD and ASD were the most appropriate diagnoses, and James would be ill-served “pumped full of neuroleptics.”

He returns now to the original Developmental Behavioral Pediatric consulting team. What would you do to try to bridge this impasse?