Another Option for Aggression and Self-Injury, Alternative Benzodiazepines for Catatonia in Profound Autism

J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2023 Apr;33(3):109-117. doi: 10.1089/cap.2022.0067. Epub 2023 Apr 6.


Introduction: Individuals with profound autism often present for inpatient care due to aggression. Diagnostic and treatment options are limited. Agitated catatonia is a treatable comorbidity in autism, which should be considered in cases of aggression. Preliminary data report high clinical response rates of catatonia in autism when treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), with poor response to lorazepam. However, access to ECT is often limited, especially in pediatric populations. Methods: We conducted a retrospective chart review to identify cases of hyperactive catatonia with partial response to lorazepam in profoundly autistic children presenting to the pediatric medical hospital. Five cases were identified, all of whom were followed by the child and adolescent psychiatry consult-liaison service during admission and treated without the use of ECT. Data from the medical record were obtained after institutional review board (IRB) approval including the following: (1) treatment course, (2) Bush-Francis Catatonia Rating Scale (BFCRS) scores, and (3) Kanner Catatonia Rating Scale (KCRS) severity scores. The Clinical Global Impressions-Improvement (CGI-I) Scale was applied retrospectively to each case. Results: All five patients demonstrated clinically significant improvements. The average CGI-I score was 1.2. The average percentage reduction in the BFCRS and KCRS severity scores was 63% and 59%, respectively. Two of five patients were first stabilized with infusions midazolam and dexmedetomidine due to the symptom severity and then transitioned to long-acting oral benzodiazepines. Overall, four of five patients were stabilized with oral clonazepam and one of five with oral diazepam. Notably, four of five patients experienced an acute worsening of aggression, self-injury, and other catatonic symptoms with escalating dosages of antipsychotic treatment, which occurred before inpatient admission. All patients experienced resolution of physical aggression toward self and/or others, experienced improvement in their communicative abilities, and were able to return home or enter residential level of care upon discharge. Conclusions: Given the limited availability of ECT and the unclear utility of lorazepam for hyperactive catatonia in autism, the use of long-acting benzodiazepines and/or midazolam infusion may offer a safe and readily available treatment alternative.

Keywords: aggression; benzodiazepines; catatonia; profound autism; self-injury.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Aggression
  • Autistic Disorder* / drug therapy
  • Benzodiazepines / therapeutic use
  • Catatonia* / diagnosis
  • Catatonia* / drug therapy
  • Child
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy*
  • Humans
  • Lorazepam / therapeutic use
  • Midazolam / therapeutic use
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Self-Injurious Behavior*


  • Benzodiazepines
  • Lorazepam
  • Midazolam