Study explores connection between autism spectrum disorder and anxiety

Anxiety, in the right doses, actually serves an important function. For example, anxiety can help us respond to a dangerous situation, or motivate us to behave in a particular way to achieve a desired outcome.

However, too much anxiety can interfere with our daily lives and make it harder for us to do the things we need or want to do. This is especially true for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for whom anxiety disorder is one of the most frequently co-occurring conditions, affecting 40 to 50% of children with ASD.

Anxiety is rated as a leading concern for parents of youth with ASD, given its frequency, associated impairment, and how it may interact with ASD symptomology.

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Some might say that anxiety — particularly social anxiety — is part and partial of the ASD diagnosis. But evidence suggeststhat individuals with ASD who are higher-functioning (i.e., those who have fluent speech and require fewer supports) are more likely to develop anxiety because they are aware of their differences yet struggle with social communication.

Fortunately, there are treatments and therapies that can help. Anxiety is often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves helping the individual talk through their thoughts and feelings in order to change their behavior. Unfortunately, access to CBT may be limited for many children with ASD, particularly those who may require a modified program.

New research in this area is critical to understanding the most successful treatment paradigms, families’ treatment preferences, and ways that we can improve accessibility to treatment.

At Baylor College of Medicine, we have developed an evidence-based form of CBT that delivers effective treatment ingredients in a dosed format. With grant support from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, we are actively studying this approach.

The ability to provide differing amounts of treatment for youth with ASD and anxiety allows us to personalize treatment, teach parents core therapy components (e.g., facing fears), and conserve resources in order to help more children.

Although anxiety is a concern for many families of youth with ASD, studies like this one provide an option to receive free therapy resources while helping to understand how to best support families.

Interested in learning more? See details on how to participate in the study.

Additional Resources

Learn about the Kochel Lab for Clinical Autism Research.

View available autism clinical trials at Baylor.

-By Robin P. Kochel, Ph.D., Leandra N. Berry, Ph.D., Sophie Schneider, Ph.D. and Eric A. Storch, Ph.D.

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