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.
First, it’s important to note that medicines for treating autism are most effective when used in conjunction with behavioral therapies. Ideally, medicines are a complement to other treatment strategies.
Medicines for treating autism’s three core symptoms—communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive behavior—have long represented a huge area of unmet need. Unfortunately, few drugs on the market today effectively relieve these symptoms and none of the options most often prescribed by practitioners work well for every individual.
In fact, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two drugs for treating irritability associated with the autism (risperidone and aripiprazole), it has yet to approve a medicine for treating autism’s three core characteristics. Nonetheless, medicines such as risperidone and aripiprazole can be beneficial in ways that can ease these core symptoms, because relieving irritability often improves sociability while reducing tantrums, aggressive outbursts and self-injurious behaviors.
The good news is that the range of medication options may soon change, thanks to recent advances in our understanding of the biology that produces autism’s core symptoms. This has made it possible for researchers to begin testing compounds that may help normalize crucial brain functions involved in autism. Early experiments suggest that several compounds with different mechanisms of action have great potential for clinical use, and many are now in clinical trials. [This link takes you to the search engine of the NIH clinical trial network, with results under the search term “autism.”]
Although these developments are exciting and hold real promise for bettering the lives of people with autism, we will have to wait at least a few more years before we know if any of these drug studies produce enough information on safety and effectiveness to merit FDA approval for the treatment of core symptoms.
Today, most medicines prescribed to ease autism’s disabling symptoms are used “off label,” meaning that their FDA approval is for other, sometimes-related conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sleep disturbances or depression. Such off-label use is common in virtually all areas of medicine and is usually done to relieve significant suffering in the absence of sufficiently large and targeted studies.
An example in autism would be the class of medicines known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including fluoxetine. Several of these medicines are FDA-approved for the treatment of anxiety disorders and depression, in children as well as adults. Although large clinical trials have yet to demonstrate their effectiveness, parents and clinicians have found that they can ease social difficulties among some people with autism. However, it has proven to be difficult to predict which medicines in this class may produce the greatest benefit for a given patient with autism. Similarly, determining the best dose can be quite challenging.
Another example would be naltrexone, which is FDA-approved for the treatment of alcohol and opioid addictions. It can ease disabling repetitive and self-injurious behaviors in some children and adults with autism.
These medicines do not work for everyone, and all medicines have side effects. And as noted above, each person may respond differently to medicines. In addition, changes in response to a medicine can occur as time goes on, even when the dose is not changed. Over time, some people develop tolerance (when a drug stops being effective) or sensitization (when side effects worsen).
Because using these medications in children and adolescents can be a difficult decision for parents, you may find it helpful to use our Medication Decision Tool Kit, a guide for actively working with a physician to find the approach that fits best with your values and goals. You can download it free here.
These are exciting times in the development of new medicines for relieving autism’s most disabling symptoms, and Autism Speaks is increasing its funding and focus in this promising area, while placing great emphasis on ensuring the safety of promising new medicines. Please stay tuned!
Read more science news and perspective on the Science Page.