Thursday, August 10, 2017

Behaviour in PWS - where? What? Why?

by Linda Thornton

In .52 of a second, Google furnished me with a choice of 158,000 articles on behaviour in Prader-Willi syndrome.  It is overwhelming and if I were a new parent, I would not know where to start.  In fact, I probably would yell at Google, close the page and burst into tears.  There are scholarly articles, there are profiles of behaviours, advice on managing behaviours of pre-schoolers, toddlers, pre-teens, teens, adult and so on.  After 20 pages of Google and in amongst all the PWS articles,  suddenly I find a page on growing marijuana and by this stage, I’m thinking “what a good idea!”

Personally, I think that finding a PWS Association either online or in reality, is the best possible thing to do.  To be able to talk to someone face to face, or on the phone, or even just an email, will result in a calmer, easier-to-understand answer than trying to assimilate information from 158,000 different articles.  That’s just frightening.

The best possible thing you can learn about behaviour and PWS is that children and adults are all different.  They are people first, and just happen to have Prader-Willi syndrome.  Knowing your child, what motivates them, what they love and who they love, what scares them, what makes them anxious, and so on, is the first step towards understanding behaviour.  When you stop and think about it, everything we do, from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night, invokes behaviour of some kind or another.  Our behaviour sends messages to others in many different ways – no matter whether we have a disability or not.  It’s how we interact.  

I’ve watched the behaviour of my 32-year-old over the years and can read her like a book.  But I can also do this with my other children as well, the only difference is that my 32-year-old has more pages in her book.  That’s life.  Whether her behaviour is challenging, whether she’s testing whatever system that’s been put in place, or whether it's her every-day behaviour, for me the most interesting thing is how she interacts with other people.  I used to worry that she would ‘snap’ if someone said or did the wrong thing – and by this I mean a stranger, not someone she is familiar with because the more familiar she is with someone, the more likely she is to let loose! 

The other day, for example, I listened to her on the phone to her bank.  She was polite, very clear in her request to transfer funds and knew exactly what she was talking about.  She quickly and efficiently changed one automatic payment into another.  No problem at all.

I’ve heard her ring and make a doctor’s appointment; phone the library and request a particular book; she manages a visit to the Vet with her cat perfectly well and asks all the right questions and makes sure she knows the answers.  In an emergency (her concept of one) she will get herself down to the Emergency Department at the local hospital (with a staff person) and wait until she can be seen.  She knows when she is ill (see previous blog on gastroenteritis).  By being able to do these things she avoids becoming anxious, frustrated, and angry.  It has become so clear to me over the years that by first teaching her about making good choices, she is able to do so much more for herself.

Sometimes, in the middle of a catastrophic outburst I tend to forget everything I’ve just said above and feel as though I’m clinging to the life-raft for all I’m worth.  Just getting through to the other side of the meltdown is all I’m hoping for at this stage!  I hate it when these happen because I know how terrible it is both for her, and for the person she is focussed on.

I began to wonder what sort of chemical imbalance might be in place when these meltdowns got under way.  So I asked Tony Holland about this and about his research with vagus nerve stimulation.  He responded,

"Our work on vagus nerve stimulation suggested that people with PWS essentially have a a low threshold for such outbursts and also impaired emotional control - in other words people with PWS are easily triggered and once it starts such an outburst more easily builds up and leads to loss of control when compared to people without PWS. This appears to be improved by vagus nerve stimulation. The vagus nerve is part of the autonomic nervous system of the body that manages our response to threat - what we think vagus nerve stimulation is doing is normalising that response. The other rather different issue we are beginning to look at are two chemical (neurotransmitter) systems in the brain - GABA and glutamate - the former is inhibitory and the latter, excitatory. It may be that an imbalance of these two systems is important - a new study we are starting uses brain imaging to explore this hypothesis"

So, although I know that there is much behavioural research going on with Oxytocin* (Google: 1.10 seconds, 115,000 articles) and the Vagus nerve stimulation** (Google:  .72 of a second, 60,600 articles), I can’t help but think that deep down it pays to really understand your child and what makes them tick.  You may be surprised.

 (If you would like help with behaviour issues and would like to talk to our specialists about this, please email us)

*Maithé Tauber Oxytocin research
**Tony Holland Vagus Nerve Stimulation


  1. Thank you Linda for your article. I like the way you approached "behaviour". It is so true, so important to understand our children/adults,in their way they are amazing people. Sometimes it worries me, because I feel I know my daughter so well, I can read her inner emotions and predict when trouble is coming.... I get the feeling that she is actually part of me.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I know the feeling you describe and I can remember someone telling me in no uncertain terms that it was called "co-dependency". I looked it up (Google: 4,600 articles in .64 second :-)) and thought - ok, so what, label it if you like, it doesn't bother me, and I'd rather have it than not. Who else will ever understand her better?!

  2. I loved your humor, thanks for that. And for the very logical approach that really rings true with my 24 year old. Just gotta ask, did you ever learn to grown those marijuana plants?

    1. It's that logical reasoning; the step by step understanding that makes you realise you can actually understand the behaviours! Most of the time! As for my marijuana garden... well!!

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  4. Thank you, Isabella, for your lovely comment!