Missed Diagnosis: How Many Times Have You Seen This Happen?

Jerome is 22 years old. He enjoys NASCAR racing, going to the beach, and eating out at restaurants. He works 12 hours per week at a local grocery store and, in his leisure time, likes to watch sports on TV with his dad and brothers. Jerome uses a wheelchair and requires assistance with activities of daily living, including eating, dressing, and bathing. He communicates primarily through gestures, facial expressions, noises, and pictures, using the basic communication device he received in high school. He lives at home with his parents, who are his primary caregivers. He also receives personal care and employment support during the day from a paid supporter named Cecelia.

Cecelia recently approached Jerome’s mother because she has been noticing changes in his behavior over the past several months. Typically upbeat, Jerome has been frowning more and is less interested in activities that used to make him happy. Last week, when asked if he wanted to stop at a local café for lunch, he shook his head to indicate “no,” yelled, and banged his wheelchair. And this week, Jerome used his communication device to indicate “sick” and “stay home” on a workday-something he had never done before.

Jerome’s mother was also seeing subtle changes in Jerome that were concerning. She shared with Cecelia that Jerome was groaning a lot, not sleeping well at night, and seemed to be eating less than usual at mealtimes. He recently yelled at his brother and purposely knocked a bowl of snacks on the floor while getting ready to watch the Sunday afternoon football game- something he usually loves to do.   He had also started chewing on his hands, causing chafing and redness.

When asked about how he was feeling, Jerome dropped his head, grimaced, looked away, and, using his communication device, indicated he felt “sick,” “tired,” and “mad.”

Jerome’s mother scheduled an appointment with his primary care provider. Unfortunately, this appointment did not go well all around. The provider was new to the practice, as was Jerome, having recently transitioned from his long-time pediatric provider. Jerome and his mother waited for almost an hour past their scheduled appointment time, and when the provider came into the room, she did not acknowledge Jerome, speaking only to his

mother. A cursory exam was done at the same time Jerome’s mother was filling the provider in about his recent behavioral changes and his complaints of feeling sick and mad. In less than 15 minutes, the provider concluded that Jerome was “probably depressed given his situation” and recommended that Jerome be started on tricyclic anti-depressant medication.

In the meantime, Cecelia contacted Jerome’s case manager to inform her of her discussion with Jerome’s mom and to let her know the outcome of his appointment with his primary care provider. The case manager, who was also relatively new to Jerome, thanked Cecelia for the information. Recognizing that Jerome’s symptoms represented a change in health status, she accessed his web-based Health Risk Screening Tool (HRST) record and updated it accordingly.


Using the information provided by the case manager, the HRST recognized the possibility of an undiagnosed gastrointestinal condition as the potential cause of Jerome’s behavioral symptoms and produced a “service consideration” suggesting the need for clinical follow-up to rule out Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (more commonly known as GERD).

Meanwhile, Jerome was taking his anti-depressant but wasn’t feeling any better. His behavior continued to deteriorate; he lost 12 pounds and called in sick to work so often that he was in danger of losing his job. He was exhausted from lack of sleep, as were his parents.

The case manager called Jerome’s mother to share the service consideration produced by the HRST and assisted her with obtaining a referral to see a gastroenterologist. As luck would have it, the gastroenterologist had a brother with disabilities, was happy to meet and talk with Jerome and his mother, and quickly recognized that Jerome’s “behaviors” were probably related to acid reflux which can cause pain and discomfort at mealtimes and is exacerbated when lying down in bed. Diagnostics were completed, and a diagnosis of GERD was made.

Jerome’s diet was adjusted, and his bed was positioned so that the head of the bed was higher than the foot of the bed. Medications, including antacids and H-2 (histamine) blockers, were ordered. Jerome’s primary care physician was consulted, and the tricyclic anti-depressant was discontinued because a diagnosis of depression no longer seemed appropriate and because this class of medications is to be avoided in people with GERD because it can actually worsen their symptoms.

Within two weeks, Jerome was back to his baseline, smiling, eating, working, and watching the NASCAR races with his brothers.

What happened in this situation?

Jerome was likely the victim of “diagnostic overshadowing,” a phenomenon that stems from cognitive bias and poses a serious health risk for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Often, symptoms that would otherwise be addressed through immediate medical evaluation are discounted and attributed to the person’s IDD. No further assessment is conducted, differential diagnoses are not considered, and medical conditions continue untreated, often while psychotropic medications are being given to “treat” the person’s symptoms. This bias is usually unconscious and can be addressed through healthcare provider education.

Fortunately, Jerome has attentive and knowledgeable caregivers and advocates who understand the importance of “looking beyond the symptoms,” access to a robust health risk management tool, and a disability-competent health care provider. However, there are many others who do not. In order to ensure health equity for all people with IDD, there is a need to:

  1. Ensure health care providers receive education to ensure they are disability healthcare competent
  2. Effectively monitor, identify, and address emerging health risks
  3. Educate support staff to recognize and report symptoms of the “Fatal Five Plus,” conditions most likely to lead to morbidity and mortality for people with IDD: aspiration, constipation, dehydration, seizures, sepsis, and GERD

IntellectAbility can help. Contact us for more information about the Health Risk Screening Tool (HRST), the Curriculum in IDD Healthcare, and our eLearn course on the Fatal Five.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are generally considered and diagnosed in neurotypical people, but did you know they can affect persons with IDD as well? Although serious and sometimes fatal, they are treatable.

The person typically has an uncommon relationship with food. It can be portrayed in their actions, their justification for it or it can be their lover, comforter and friend. Eating disorders can also stem from distorted perceptions of weight and body image. Females are more often affected than males.

Many people do recover from eating disorders but may relapse during stressful periods in their life.

Anxiety, depression, substance abuse and obsessive-compulsive tendencies often occur in combination with eating disorders. Anxiety is the most frequently seen in connection with an eating disorder.

Here are some eating disorders that you may see:

  • Anorexia NervosaThis is identified by a significant weight loss and a skewed view of body image. There is often denial that there is a problem and the person doesn’t recognize the seriousness of the disease.
  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake DisorderThis describes a very, very “picky” eater which often results in a significant lack of nutrients and calories for cellular health and overall body health.
  • Binge EatingBinging is eating a large amount of food within 2 hours or less, significantly more than others would eat. The person has the feeling of loss of control during a binge and strong feelings of guilt and shame after the binge. Binge Eating is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.
  • Body Dysmorphic DisorderThe person focuses on one area on, or part of, the body and sees a serious “flaw(s). The area or “flaw” is generally not noticed by others. They feel ugly and deformed and “fat” when they are within their normal weight. They are constantly comparing their body to others and are obsessed with checking mirrors, excessive clothing changes and application of makeup.
  • Bulimia NervosaBulimia is binge eating with compensatory behaviors to eliminate the calories they consumed. These compensatory measures may be vomiting immediately after binging or taking excessive diuretics and laxatives. Bulimia is not necessarily about the food or its comfort, but more about body image.
  • NeophobiaNeophobia is the fear of trying any new foods and rejecting food when it is served before it is even tasted. This can sometimes be related to the presentation, form and smell of foods.
  • PicaA person eats nonnutritive substances for at least 1 month. The more severe the disability, the more likely it is for the person to have pica. Some pica can be related to nutrient and mineral deprivation, especially iron and zinc. Pica is strongly associated with disorders of the GI tract.
  • Purging DisordersPurging disorders occur in the absence of binging. Purging can take the form of self-induced vomiting, over-use of laxatives, diuretics or enemas.
  • RuminationIt is generally defined as chewing and re-swallowing prior ingested food. It can also be the voluntary and repetitive expulsion of regurgitated stomach contents. It can occur across the lifespan and is more common in persons with IDD. It is often misdiagnosed, in some cases 2 years. Generalized anxiety disorder often accompanies rumination.
  • Super TasterThis person has a sense of taste that is a higher intensity than others. A super taster typically has a more intense taste to bitter, fatty or very sweet items. They may eat more salt to counteract the bitterness. The person also may be very sensitive to hot, spicy food because pain receptors surround the taste buds.

The primary goal when treating a person with an eating disorder is to first treat the malnutrition and the underlying damage caused to organs when possible. Many people do recover from eating disorders but may relapse during stressful periods in their life. 

Obesity in America

Obesity has become so common in America, we think it’s normal when we see extremely overweight people. And, how do they find that many people to film the show “My 600 Pound Life” season after season?

Obesity is defined by the CDC as a BMI over 30 and severe obesity is a BMI over 40. Sometimes health care providers look at waist circumference as well. In women a waist circumference of > 35″ and males > 40″ is considered obese. We need to readjust our acceptance of obesity. Not because of the way the person looks, that is absolutely not what I mean, I mean the health concerns that obesity causes.

Many of the persons receiving supports may have a syndrome that is associated with obesity but we still need to manage the issue. Most of you are probably familiar with Prader Willi Syndrome and Down Syndrome (Trisomy 21). Both of these syndromes have a problem with obesity. Nevertheless, we can try to manage a person’s weight so that they are just a little heavy, but not considered unhealthy. Diet and exercise management is extremely important, not only to prevent weight gain, but also to manage constipation, hypertension, diabetes, bone health and many other conditions. Remember that eating is so much more than the intake of food, it is a social event, time for celebration and also the enjoyment of wonderful new foods.

Prader Willi Syndrome and Down Syndrome (Trisomy 21). Both of these syndromes have a problem with obesity.

Portion control, especially what we see in typical restaurants, is usually at least 2 -4 times more than the appropriate portion size. If we were served 1 cup of spaghetti on our plates, we would be very upset but that is the amount of pasta in a serving. Learning about and teaching portion sizes can be very constructive and this website from NIH is helpful. NIH Website.

Laboratory testing to monitor blood glucose, lipids, kidney function and other key indicators must be performed regularly to allow for early intervention when a problem is first identified. Face-to-face assessments with nurses in the community and the physician or a physician extender must occur regularly to help prevent increased death and other diseases.

Remember, the only person we can change is ourselves. But we can become positively contagious and set the example for others by eating in a healthy way at home with guests or if you go out to a restaurant. Be sure when shopping for food you go with the person receiving supports and teach them about portion sizes and how to read food labels. There are very simple and easy ways to teach portion control. Associate size with something they are familiar with in their environment, such as a cupcake wrapper or the tip of their finger or the palm of their hand.

I don’t know all answers to eliminating obesity, but this is a good start. 

Metabolic Syndrome and Health Impact

Taking a lot of medications is a very real problem among persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. One pharmacy that only provides services to persons with IDD indicates their average number of medications per person is in double digits! No person can consume that many medications without experiencing side effects, drug:drug interactions or drug:food interactions.

Oftentimes, the medications that are frequently prescribed are anti- psychotic medications. The first-generation anti-psychotic medications consist of drugs like Thorazine (chlorpromazine), Haldol (haloperidol) and Mellaril (thioridazine) among others. These medications have a nasty side effect of Tardive Dyskinesia or TD. TD is a very unpleasant side effect and can certainly bring social attention and embarrassment, but it generally has little effect on mortality. The second-generation anti-psychotic medications such as Clozaril (clozapine), Zyprexa (olanzapine), Risperdal (risperidone) and Abilify (aripiprazole) have a different side effect called Metabolic Syndrome. Unlike TD, Metabolic Syndrome can and does kill people.

Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of disease processes. It consists of Diabetes Mellitus, Hypertension, Obesity, elevated Triglycerides and decreased HDL cholesterol. These diseases may be controlled, but often aren’t, due to either lack of awareness by health care providers, lack of aggressive treatment for persons with IDD, lack of ability to purchase high quality foods and plan nutritious meals or lack of compliance among persons.

It is critical that Metabolic Syndrome be managed and controlled to the best of our ability. Poorly controlled Diabetes Mellitus can cause blindness, kidney disease and failure, poor wound healing and loss of limbs. Hypertension that is not well managed can also cause kidney failure along with other serious and life-threatening conditions like aneurysms, strokes and heart failure. Obesity contributes to heart disease, the development of hypertension and diabetes and social unacceptance. Poor regulation of cholesterol and triglycerides increases stroke and heart attack risk.

It is critical that Metabolic Syndrome be managed and controlled to the best of our ability.

Laboratory testing to monitor blood glucose, lipids, kidney function and other key indicators must be performed regularly to allow for early intervention when a problem is first identified. Face-to-face assessments with nurses in the community and the physician or a physician extender must occur regularly to help prevent increased death and other diseases.

Early recognition of Metabolic Syndrome may save lives. All providers of services should remember that although the 2nd generation anti-psychotics are safer than the 1st generation, they are not without their own set of issues. Quite often these medications significantly improve the quality of life for a person with IDD, but the potential side effects must be recognized and managed.

Dementia and I/DD

We are all exposed to different syndromes every day in our work. A syndrome is a set of symptoms that consistently occur together. Dementia is like a syndrome but not all people lose the same skills consistently. With dementia, there can be a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other cognitive skills that when presented together are severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks. You may also hear dementia referred to as Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s is just one of many types of dementia, but it does account for 60% – 80% of the cases.

Alzheimer’s is just one of many types of dementia, but it does account for 60% – 80% of the cases.

In the neuro-typical population, we expect to see the onset of dementia after the age of 65. However, since persons with I/DD age quicker than neuro-typical peers, the onset of their dementia may occur at a much earlier age, some as low as 35 in certain I/DD syndromes and diagnoses. For a person with I/DD never assume that the changes they are exhibiting are part of their diagnosis or syndrome. Always know the baseline functioning of the person so you can pick up on subtle changes. The typical screens for dementia are generally not appropriate for persons with I/DD because often they never did know the answer to the question in the screening, not just since they started showing symptoms.

Some of the declines to watch for are:

  1. Confusion or problems with recent memory. Long term memory is generally not affected.
  2. Getting lost in familiar places.
  3. Wandering or elopement.
  4. Decline in ability to assist with or independently complete activities of daily living, including toileting.
  5. Inappropriate emotional response—crying when they are happy or clapping and smiling when there is a solemn occasion.
  6. Unable to follow simple instructions.
  7. Loss of ability to identify objects.
  8. Change in personality.

Anyone would dread such a diagnosis and may experience depression. Death is always the outcome of dementia. Disabilities, mental health and behavioral issues may become more difficult to manage. The dementia diagnosis may have an emotional effect on the staff as well. One might even see depression signs in the staff as they slowly lose someone who helps fulfill their life.

But we can make this whole dementia process more manageable and be proactive. Let’s find out the desires and dreams of the person and try our best to bring those to fruition. Let us do things and provide activities that will delight the person and bring happiness to all. Sometimes we have to be determined and dare to be a strong advocate for the person to continue to live an inclusive and fulfilled life until they are no longer able to do so. 

What is Sepsis?

To put it simply sepsis is a term used to describe a serious illness characterized by a bacterial infection in the bloodstream. You might’ve heard the term blood poisoning, that’s another term for sepsis.

Sources of sepsis are urinary tract infection and pneumonia. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of these conditions and get them treated early. Earlier treatment of these and other infections may prevent someone from becoming septic.

If someone is getting septic, you might see them looking pale, sweaty, their heart rate may go up, they could be breathing harder, weak and confused. You might also see blotchiness of their skin and a high fever.

Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs to be treated immediately. Every hour that treatment is delayed increases the risk of death by 10 percent. To use a phrase you probably heard In other webinars and e-learning modules by HRS U “when in doubt, send them out!” That’s an important thing to remember.

Join us for our upcoming webinar “The Fatal Five, Plus!”. In that webinar you’ll learn about sepsis and several other very important medical conditions that are common in people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. You’ll learn how to recognize them early and help people that you support live happier and healthier lives.

Death from Aspiration Pneumonia

Originally published December 2016. Updated December 2022. 

Aspiration occurs when foreign material is inhaled into the airway. Causes of death include asphyxiation due to a blocked airway and irritation or infection of the respiratory tract due to inhaled material, or aspiration pneumonia, which will be the primary focus of this article.

Sources of aspirated material include: 

  • food or drink
  • saliva or nasal secretions
  • teeth and dental prosthetics 
  • objects placed in the mouth, such as gum, toys, coins, or other small foreign objects.

These objects are often contaminated, not only with bacteria from the oral cavity but also with whatever outside organisms they encountered before being placed in the mouth.

Aspirated material can also come from the stomach, either due to vomiting or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). This material is particularly dangerous because of its elevated acidity.

Factors that enhance the risk of aspiration from either source include:

  • altered level of awareness
  • poor trunk control
  • physical deformity
  • medications that are sedating or otherwise impact swallowing
  • alcohol consumption 
  • problems with swallowing, including those associated with the aging process
  • behavioral disorders, which involve food seeking/stuffing or consumption of non-food items (PICA)

Recent antibiotic use or hospitalization, place of residence (such as a rehabilitation facility or a nursing home), and overall level of health can also increase the risk for bacterial infection with aspiration pneumonia. Individuals receiving enteral nutrition (tube feeding) have been determined to have a higher level of risk compared with those who eat by mouth.

Statistics are not readily available, but experienced field clinicians say that roughly 25% of the time, the source of aspirated material comes from above, and 75% of the time, it comes from the GI tract.

Symptoms of aspiration include:

  • bluish discoloration of the lips or
  • coughing or gagging
  • discolored, foul-smelling sputum that may contain blood or pus
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • wheezing
  • sweating without exertion
  • breath odor and difficulties with swallowing

Examination findings may reveal fever, elevated respiratory rate, altered respiratory sounds, decreased oxygen saturation, elevated pulse, and decreased mental awareness.

Outcomes with aspiration pneumonia can vary greatly depending on many factors, including the severity and extent of the pneumonia, the type of bacteria involved, and the timeliness of treatment. Individuals who are in poor physical condition at the onset of symptoms will obviously not fare as well as those who are healthier.

Aspiration pneumonia is one of the top causes of death in people with IDD, and it can often be prevented. Decreasing the risk of aspiration pneumonia is a task that must be relentlessly pursued from several angles. 

  1. Simply helping individuals attain optimal body positions during and after eating is a vital first step in the process.
  2. Specialized support and positioning both during and after a meal may be required for those who have no or poor trunk control or who have other significant bodily deformities such as severe scoliosis.
  3. The person’s typical response to eating should be known and observed, particularly if they receive enteral nutrition via gastrostomy, jejunostomy, or nasogastric tubes.
  4. Monitoring for decreased oxygen saturation during and immediately after eating can be a good way to detect silent aspiration.
  5. People who have known or suspected swallowing disorders, food-related behavioral disorders, and those whose level of awareness may be impacted by medications or other factors should be given particularly close observation and any necessary mealtime support.
  6. People whose health and nutritional status are compromised should also receive specialized attention and support to decrease their vulnerability.
  7. Health and safety training for you and direct support staff is important. Ensure consistent and comprehensive knowledge of the warning signs of aspiration pneumonia and the remainder of The Fatal Five. 
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