Self-injury in autism as an alternate sign of catatonia: Implications for electroconvulsive therapy

Lee E. Wachtel, Dirk M. Dhossche

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Multiple reports show the efficacious usage of ECT for catatonia in individuals with autism. There are also a few reports showing that ECT improves self-injury in people with and without autism. In this hypothesis, self-injury in autism and other developmental disorders may be an alternate sign of catatonia, and as such an indication for electroconvulsive therapy. The issue is important because self-injury occurs at an increased rate in autistic and intellectually disabled individuals, but is poorly understood and often difficult to treat with psychological and pharmacological means. Self-injury may be considered a type of stereotypy, a classic symptom of catatonia that is exquisitely responsive to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Historical and modern reports further support the association of self-injury, tics and catatonia. Central gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) dysfunction may provide an important explanatory link between autism, catatonia and self-injury. Therefore, people with autism and other developmental disorders who develop severe self-injury (with or without concomitant tics) should be assessed for catatonia, and ECT should be considered as a treatment option. Further studies of the utility of ECT as an accepted treatment for catatonia are warranted in the study of self-injury in autism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-114
Number of pages4
JournalMedical Hypotheses
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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