Today’s “Got Questions?” answer comes from clinical psychologist Jeffrey Wood, Ph.D., of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at the University of California, Los Angeles. The recipient of three Autism Speaks grants, Wood has extensively studied anxiety in elementary school and adolescent children with autism.
Anxiety is common among children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Research suggests that at least 30 percent of children withASDalso have an anxiety disorder such as social phobia, separation anxiety, excessive worry/rumination, obsessive compulsive disorder or a phobia such as extreme fear of spiders or loud noise. Indeed, many of the children involved in our ASD research suffer multiple anxiety disorders.
It’s important to remember that anxiety can range from fluctuating, mild and completely understandable to unremitting, severe and irrational. Most people experience some form of anxiety on a regular basis, and this generally involves some degree of physical discomfort as well as negative mood.
Moderate levels of anxiety can actually be a positive, motivating force to increase one’s level of effort and attention when working or socializing. However, research on how children adapt to different settings (academic, athletic, social, etc.) suggests that high levels of anxiety can interfere with academic and social success.
Several types of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been developed to address anxiety in children with ASD, with promising results from several clinical research centers. Techniques include challenging negative thoughts with logic, role-play and modeling courageous behavior, and hierarchical (step by step) exposure to feared situations.
We and others have developed programs using modified versions of CBT that was originally developed for typically developing youth. These directly address problematic levels of anxiety in children with ASD. Several of these programs incorporate “special interests” to motivate children to engage in treatment activities during weekly sessions. For example, the therapist may use favorite cartoon characters to model coping skills, or intersperse conversations about a child’s special interests throughout the treatment sessions to promote motivation and engagement.
Depending on the program, these treatment sessions usually last 60 to 90 minutes each and extend over a course of 6 to 16 weeks. Most treatment plans also require parent involvement and weekly homework assignments.
Results from our randomized clinical trial, case studies and related reports indicate that most children with ASD who complete such programs experience significant improvements in anxiety as well as some improvement in social communication skills and other daily living skills. 1-9
We and others continue to conduct research on these and related behavioral interventions for relieving anxiety. At present these intensive and scientifically studied treatment programs are available primarily at a small number of autism treatment centers. We hope that further research and dissemination efforts will make them become more accessible to families throughout North America and elsewhere.
1. Wood JJ, Gadow KD. Exploring the nature and function of anxiety in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Clinical Psychology: Research and Practice. (In press)
2. Wood JJ, Drahota A, Sze K, Har K, Chiu A, Langer DA. Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorders: a randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2009;50(3):224-34.
3. Sze KM, Wood JJ. Enhancing CBT for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders and concurrent anxiety: a case study. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2008;36:403-9.
4. Chalfant AM, Rapee R, Carroll L. Treating anxiety disorders in children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders: a controlled trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2007;37(10):1842-57.
5. Lang R, Regester A, Lauderdale S, Ashbaugh K, Haring S. Treatment of anxiety in autism spectrum disorders using cognitive behaviour therapy: A systematic review. Developmental Neurorehabilitation. 2010;13(1):53-63.
6. Reaven JA, Hepburn SL, Ross RG. Use of the ADOS and ADI-R in children with psychosis: importance of clinical judgment. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2008;13(1):81-94.
7. Scarpa A, Reyes NM. Improving emotion regulation with CBT in young children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders: a pilot study. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2011;39(4):495-500.
8. White SW, Albano AM, Johnson CR, et al. Development of a cognitive-behavioral intervention program to treat anxiety and social deficits in teens with high-functioning autism. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. 2010;13(1):77-90.
9. Sofronoff K, Attwood T, Hinton S. A randomized controlled trial of a CBT intervention for anxiety in children with Asperger syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatiry. 2005;46(11):1152-60.
Read more autism research news and perspective on the science page.
Without question, anxiety is a real and serious problem for many people on the autism spectrum. We hear this from parents, teachers and doctors, as well as from adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This disabling anxiety can take the form of one or more disorders, including panic disorder and phobias.
A recent review of scientific studies on autism and anxiety revealed that we have no clear gauge of how commonly anxiety disorders overlap with autism. A few small, relatively short-term studies have produced starkly different results: from 11 percent to 84 percent. (For comparison, the prevalence of anxiety disorders among the general population is about 18 percent.) A reliable estimate will require a study that tracks many more individuals with autism over longer periods of time and that considers the distinctive way that anxiety oftentimes expresses itself in those affected by ASD.
Fortunately, Autism Speaks is funding the Autism Treatment Network, which collects systematic data on a wide range of medical conditions, including anxiety disorders, in children with ASD. This data will help us better understand the proportion of people with ASD who are suffering from anxiety symptoms.
Meanwhile preliminary studies have provided insights. They suggest, for example, that adolescents with autism may be particularly prone to anxiety disorders, while younger children on the spectrum may not differ at all from the average population. Some studies likewise suggest that high-functioning individuals on the spectrum experience higher rates of anxiety disorders than do lower-functioning individuals. Still we must emphasize that these results are preliminary. We don’t know nearly as much as we should about how anxiety disorders affect those with autism.
A recent review of studies found that behavioral interventions can help many children and adolescents with autism who also struggle with anxiety. Along these lines, some studies suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy can be particularly helpful for high-functioning adolescents and adults with autism and anxiety. We will explore behavioral interventions further in a future “Got Questions?” blog. My own expertise is in the medical treatment of anxiety in persons with ASD.
Currently, we have no medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressly for the treatment of anxiety in children, adolescents or adults with autism. Some classes of drugs commonly prescribed for treating anxiety disorders in the general population likewise help some of those on the autism spectrum. These include the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac. For those with autism, anxiety drugs are best used in combination with behavioral interventions. Among high-functioning individuals, they may be particularly effective when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy.
However, some doctors report that anti-anxiety medications seem to be less effective overall in people with autism spectrum disorder than they are in the general population. This observation needs to be verified with controlled research. It suggests the possibility that the biological root of anxiety in those with autism may differ from the “norm” and, as a result, may respond best to different treatments.
At Autism Speaks, we are actively supporting research into anxiety disorders and other medical conditions frequently associated with autism. This includes both basic research on the underlying biology of autism and the safe development of drugs that can relieve disabling symptoms and improve quality of life.
If you are considering anti-anxiety medication for a child with autism, our recently published Medication Decision Aid can help you work with your child’s physician to sort through the pros and cons in the context of your values and goals for your child. You can learn more about the medication tool kit and download a free copy, here.
Got more questions? Send them to GotQuestions@autismspeaks.org. And bring them to our next webchat with Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D., and Autism Speaks assistant vice president and head of medical research Joe Horrigan, M.D. More information on their monthly webchats here.
This “In Their Own Words” is by Taran Burns, a young man with Asperger Syndrome.
I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve known since I was 16, now I’m 23. My daily life is filled with anxiety, agoraphobia, paranoia, and usually a deep depression that takes a lot of effort to snap out of. When I decide I need a break from the chaos of work and the cacophony of city sounds, being completely crowded and yet so alone, I escape to Wales.
This lake in Wales gives me an instant sense of relief. I am one with the world and completely at peace. The lake connects me to my childhood, nature and a feeling that I am alive. Here, in my own company, I do not feel alone.
“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.