Dec 17 2012

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Exploring the Relationship Between Autism and Anxiety

anxiety in autismAutism spectrum disorders (ASD) – a family of developmental disorders associated with complex social challenges – can be scary, and not just because autism’s causes remain largely unknown, or because effective treatments are elusive. Autism is also scary because its prevalence seems to be on the rise.

According to a recent estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, roughly 1 in 88 children has ASD. This already alarming statistic is a 23 percent increase over the CDC’s previous report, from 2009.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research (CAR) is leading the way in the search to better understand this complicated disorder. CAR investigators work every day to discover the underlying causes of ASD, with the ultimate goal of finding those treatments that work best for individual patients.

Along these lines, by examining pediatric patients with anxiety and autism, a new study by one CAR researcher seeks to effectively diagnose, measure, and treat children with autism who have anxiety. John Herrington, PhD, associate director of the Developmental Neuroimaging Laboratory at CAR, was awarded a grant by the Dublin, Ireland-based pharmaceutical company Shire to investigate anxiety in pediatric patients with ASD.

The study has the potential to benefit a large population, for as many as 40 to 50 percent of children with ASD might also suffer from clinical anxiety, Dr. Herrington noted.

Over the past few months, Dr. Herrington has been recruiting and testing research participants, with a goal of eventually recruiting 150 patients, ages 7 to 18, across four groups. The first group will have ASD but no anxiety, and the second group will have both ASD and anxiety. The third group will consist of children who are developing normally, without a psychiatric diagnosis, while the fourth will be made up of children who have an anxiety disorder but who do not have ASD.

Though the overall purpose of Dr. Herrington’s study is to examine anxiety in children with ASD, “the best way to do that is to look at anxiety in typically developing populations as well,” he said.

In addition to MRI scans, questionnaires, and computerized tests, the researchers will use eyetracking technology to determine whether ASD-related anxiety is associated with abnormal eye gaze patterns. Eyetracking has the potential to be significantly useful in ASD research, as the technology can track behavior while placing few demands on participants.

“One of the ultimate outcomes of this project … is to see what the simplest tools possible are to measure anxiety” in ASD, Dr. Herrington noted.

Permanent link to this article: http://blog.research.chop.edu/exploring-the-relationship-between-autism-and-anxiety/


  1. Autism Spectrum

    Awareness about this children disorder is very much necessary, as i have found some parents who are even not familiar with these words, and when their children are actually suffering from this type of problem, they even don’t understand it.
    It’s today’s need to guide the parents about all possible children disorders, which are the reason for their weird Behavior.

  2. Joy Payton

    An interesting study! Could this be a way to more clearly delineate the various types of social functioning found on “the spectrum”? So many parents struggle with helping their autistic-spectrum children learn to make eye contact or participate socially in school… autism related, anxiety-related, or both? I will definitely check in again to see what’s happening with this research!

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