Anxiety occurs in about 40%-60% of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), yet clinicians aren’t exactly sure how the symptoms present and how to treat them.
A recently completed study study by a team at the Center for Autism Research (CAR), suggested that individuals with ASD experience anxiety in two ways.
They hypothesized that some children with ASD experience traditional anxiety. These behaviors are the ones mental health specialists see on a regular basis, such as everyday worries, generalized anxiety, and separation anxiety.
They also hypothesized that some children experience atypical anxiety. These behaviors are ones not commonly seen in anxiety disorders, but cause high levels of distress for children with ASD. Atypical anxiety includes symptoms such as excessive worry about changes in routine, anxiety about knowing what to expect, or worry about very specific topics (the time, following rules, etc.). For a subset of individuals with ASD, these worries can be debilitating.
The scientists found that of the participants, 63% presented with impairing anxiety. Of the 63%, 17% had traditional anxiety symptoms, 15% had atypical symptoms, and 31% had both.
The children who had traditional anxiety were more likely to be anxious thinkers, have sensory hypersensitivity, and have strong language ability. The severity of their ASD diagnosis did not play a role.
The results suggest that youth with ASD express anxiety in ways similar and dissimilar to children without ASD. This has implications for how we identify, treat, and study anxiety disorders in ASD. If we rely only on traditional definitions of anxiety, we may miss the opportunity to understand and treat some of the atypical anxieties facing children with ASD.
Source: Kerns, C.M., Kendall, P.C., Berry, L., Souders, M.C., Franklin, M.E., Schultz, R.T., Miller, J., and Herrington, J. (2014). “Traditional and Atypical Presentations of Anxiety in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(11), 2851-2861. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2141-7