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Challenging Case Blog

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

Friday, April 2, 2021

Navigating Medical Care for a Young Adult with Developmental Disability

Sam is a 20-year-old young man with intermittent gastritis, autism spectrum disorder, and intellectual disability who was admitted to the hospital because of nutritional concerns. His parents have legal guardianship and report that he has had increasing frequency of refusal to eat, resulting in a 15-pound weight loss over the past 3 months. On admission, a multidisciplinary team including specialists in gastroenterology, nutrition, feeding (behavioral and mechanical), psychiatry, palliative care, and social work was engaged to develop an evaluation and care plan. Sam's nutritional assessment was significant for severe malnutrition. An upper endoscopy was performed and was without abnormalities, including signs of significant gastritis.

An upper endoscopy was performed and was without abnormalities, including signs of significant gastritis.

A carefully obtained history found that Sam does not have a primary care physician. He was recently hospitalized at another facility because of his weight loss and nutritional concerns but was discharged against medical advice because of parental dissatisfaction with his care. His mother shared that she has tried many strategies to encourage Sam to eat including pushing spoons of food into his mouth, syringe feeding, and verbally pleading with Sam to take a bite, but all of these have been without success.

Because of concerns that persistent attempts to verbally and physically coerce Sam to eat may be contributing to his aversion to food/eating, the feeding team provided Sam's parents with education and coaching for utilization of behavioral cues to determine when Sam wanted to eat. Despite parents expressing their understanding of the importance of avoiding physical attempts to “make” Sam eat and the team palliative care physician meeting with Sam's parents to elicit their goals for Sam's care, his nurses reported observing several instances of Sam's mother tapping a loaded spoon on his lips. Because of minimal oral intake, a nasogastric tube was placed for provision of hydration and nutrition. Sam's parents consented to the use of soft restraints and the presence of a bedside patient care assistant because of Sam becoming agitated and pulling at the tube.

After 10 days of hospitalization, Sam was taking about 50% of his goal intake by mouth. Unfortunately, Sam removed his NG tube, and his parents refused to allow the tube to be replaced. Sam's parents then discharged him against medical advice, stating that they believed he would recover better at home. What are important considerations in caring for patients like Sam in the hospital setting and beyond?