Autism and Cancer

EKU Online > News & Updates > Psychology > Autism and Cancer

By Kaylee James, M.S., Clinical Psychology doctoral candidate

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a disorder that is becoming more and more common. ASD is a developmental diagnosis which means it is first apparent during the developmental period around the age of 2 or 3 years. Individuals with ASD have deficits in social communication as well as restricted or repetitive patterns seen in their behavior (The National Institute of Mental Illness, 2018). The specific cause of ASD is unknown, but research clearly indicates both environmental and genetic components that cause the disorder. Separately, cancer may occur at a variety of different ages and locations in the body (American Cancer Society, 2015). Cancer occurs when cells grow out of control. Treatment usually includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation and a variety of side effects may be present as a result of both cancer and the harsh treatments.

While autism spectrum disorder and cancer may appear entirely unrelated, there is actually a significant amount of overlap within the genetic components associated with each condition. Gabrielli, Manzardo, and Butler actually specify that cancer and autism may share some genetic structure (2019). Furthermore, within their research, approximately 800 genes were linked to autism spectrum disorder and approximately 3,500 genes were linked to various cancers. In total, 138 of these genes were shared between the two. Given the relationship between the genetic alterations, individuals with autism may display increased risk for some types of cancer including brain, kidney, thyroid, and pancreatic cancers (Forés-Martos, et. al, 2019). In contrast, individuals with ASD may display protective factors against some types of cancer including lung and prostate cancers. While understanding this research may help, the current body of literature is not consistent or conclusive, showing some variability in factors that may increase or decrease risk for cancer in the ASD population. Researchers are hoping however, through this research, to gain a better understanding of the source of the ASD disorder as well as potential treatment options that may lessen the severity of autism symptoms (Gabrielli, Manzardo, & Butler, 2019).

In addition to understanding future implications of the research, it is important to note that individuals with autism also get cancer. Until we learn more about lessening the severity of autism symptoms, a variety of challenges may be present for an individual with autism presenting to a healthcare facility in order to be treated for cancer. Some difficulties may include: trauma, sensory concerns, communication difficulties, behavioral outbursts, repetitive motor movements, and being out of routine (Dell et al., 2008). Similarly, there are a number of strategies that can be implemented and encouraged by family members, medical staff, occupational therapists, or psychologists.

Some strategies are as follows:
  • Coping skills– deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, sensory awareness
  • Visual schedules and tools– Provide visuals for things such as schedules, pain rating scales, and labeling needed items
  • Social stories– utilized to teach procedures, explain cancer, or prepare for changing events
  • Positive reinforcement– provide rewards and praise for good behavior and treatment compliance
  • Reduce sensory stimulation– turning off lights, utilizing a white noise machine, turn off TV, reduce various fabric textures
  • Staff consistency– As much as possible, keep staff consistent so that staff can learn unique needs and the patient can become familiar with the staff
  • Family support- Allow family in the medical room as much as possible in order to provide support for the patient.  

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