Friday, July 11, 2014

Triggers for Anxiety in Children with Autism

Anxiety Disorders are a frequent co-occurring (comorbid) problem for children and youth
with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although prevalence rates vary from 11% to 84%, most studies indicate that approximately one-half of children with ASD meet criteria for at
least one anxiety disorder. Moreover, rates of anxiety are reportedly higher than those in children with language disorders, conduct disorder, or in clinically anxious typically developing children. Despite promising advances in the research and practice literature, our understanding of the prevalence, phenomenology and treatment of anxiety in ASD remains somewhat limited. Importantly, there is a paucity of information on the difference between ASD and non-ASD populations in regards to the manifestation of anxiety symptoms. Understanding more about the factors triggering and maintaining anxiety in ASD, and how children with ASD and their families experience, think and speak about anxiety, could inform the development and implementation of autism-specific interventions for anxiety in this population.
An exploratory study published in the journal Autism reported on a series of 5 focus groups with parents of children and adolescents with ASD and anxiety as a first step in identifying the triggers, behavioral signs and cognitive processes associated with anxiety. Seventeen mothers of 19 children with a diagnosis of ASD participated in the focus groups. All children (12 boys and 7 girls) had received ASD diagnoses from local clinical services and were reported to experience significant levels of anxiety that had an impact on their functioning.
The following is a summary of key themes identified by parents in relation to triggers, symptoms and impact of anxiety in their children with ASD.
Anxiety triggers/Stressors:
1. Change or disruption to routine.
2. Confusion and worries about social and communication situations.
3. Specific fears and phobias.
4. Sensory oversensitivity and overstimulation.
5. Being prevented from preferred repetitive behaviors and interests.
6. Too many demands or expectations.
Presentation of anxiety:
1. Increase in challenging behavior.
2. Avoidance/withdrawal/escape.
3. Increase in levels of arousal.
4. Increase in sensory, repetitive, and ritualistic behavior.
5. Physical sensations associated with anxiety.
6. Cognitive distortions and errors in thinking.
Impact of anxiety:
1. Personal distress in children, parents, and siblings.
2. Increase in challenging behavior and stereotyped behaviors.
3. Restriction of activities/opportunities.
4. Negative impact on quality of life for child and family.
Across groups, parents gave markedly similar descriptions of the triggers and behavioral signs associated with anxiety. Parents’ perspectives on the anxieties of their children indicate that there are many overlaps with anxiety as experienced in the general population. Shared triggers included social worries, specific phobic stimuli, and expectations that are, or are perceived to be, too demanding. Common features of the presentation of anxiety include an increase in arousal and avoidance/escape behaviors.
There were, however, a number of autism-specific triggers and symptoms of anxiety identified in children with ASD. Key features were the intensity, pervasiveness and persistence of the anxiety. Changes and disruptions to routines, sensory sensitivities and social difficulties associated with difficulties in perspective-taking and social expectations appeared to be ASD-specific triggers. Situations that were reported to trigger anxiety often reflected autism-related difficulties in processing style or sensory sensitivity. The majority of comments about the presentation of anxiety fell into the categories of challenging behavior and avoidance/withdrawal, indicating that behavioral manifestations are the major expressions of anxiety in children with ASD. When asked about their anxious thoughts, the most prominent theme that emerged was the difficulty that children with ASD have in expressing their anxiety verbally, particularly at times of severe distress. Although this is also occurs with many typically developing children, it may be a particular difficulty for children with ASD given the challenges they face in understanding and expressing emotions and pragmatic language difficulties. In addition to similar descriptions of the triggers and behavioral signs associated with anxiety, the impact of anxiety was reported to be often times more substantial than the impact of ASD itself.
Although this study did not specifically address assessment and intervention/treatment issues, several implications in these areas emerged. For example, when parents and children with ASD are asked to describe their experiences in a semi-structured, non-directed manner, they largely focus on features more specific to the ASD population that are not typically measured on most standard anxiety measures. Although there are broad-based measures that evaluate emotional/behavioral difficulties in children with neurodevelopmental disabilities, a significant gap remains in the resources available to clinicians and researchers for measuring ASD-specific aspects of anxiety. This argues for the inclusion of observational methods in the assessment of anxiety: using multiple informants, multimodal assessment techniques, and methods.
Identification of specific triggers/stressors and presentation of anxiety in children with ASD can help educators and interventionists improve programs and services for this group of students. These findings may also be useful for clinicians working with children and youth with ASD, particularly those utilizing CBT as a treatment approach. Although recent randomized controlled trials suggest that enhanced and adapted CBT can successfully treat anxiety disorders in high functioning children with ASD, it is unclear which adaptations are critical or which modifications are required for which anxiety disorder.  Nevertheless, the authors note that their findings support the view that adaptations to CBT, such as adding ASD-specific components to the treatment protocol, are important, relevant and acceptable to parents of children with ASD.  They also caution that even though CBT can be an effective means of treating anxiety in youth with ASD, clinicians may need to consider whether CBT is the most appropriate intervention or whether other approaches such as behavioral strategies or environmental modifications may be more suitable, as accessing or modifying cognitions may prove too challenging for some youth with ASD. Yet, CBT is clearly an effective intervention for many children with ASD, and the involvement of parents can further improve outcomes.
Recommendations for future research include focusing on larger groups and control samples, and systematically investigating the link between ASD cognitive processing styles and anxiety. The authors propose that further exploration of the similarities and differences between shared and ASD-specific triggers, manifestations, and effects of anxiety using a variety of methodologies will contribute to the development of more appropriate assessment measures and ASD-specific models of anxiety which can then guide treatment for more effectively.
Ozsivadjian, A., Knott, F., & Magiati, I. (2012). Parent and child perspectives on the nature of anxiety in children and young people with autism spectrum disorders: a focus group study. Autism, 16, 107-121. DOI: 10.1177/1362361311431703
The online version of this article can be found at:
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also the editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Predictors of Aggression in Autism

Aggression is a clinically significant feature of many children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Children with ASD frequently have co-occurring (comorbid) psychiatric conditions, with estimates as high as 70 to 84 percent. These co-occurring problems often exacerbate the core symptoms of ASD and can lead to significant functional impairment. Among these problems, physical aggression appears to be especially challenging, and has been associated with serious negative outcomes in both the general population and among individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities.

Co-occurring Problems Relevant to Aggression 
Children with ASD experience a number of related difficulties, including sleep problems, gastrointestinal (GI) problems, sensory abnormalities, and self-injury. Many of these problems have been associated with aggression among typically developing children, and emerging evidence suggests a similar relationship in children with ASD. For example, sleep problems occur in a large percentage of children with ASD, with prevalence rates ranging from 50% to 80%. Sleep problems have been found to be highly associated with aggression in typically developing children. Likewise, research suggests that children with ASD and sleep problems are more likely to demonstrate aggression than those without sleep problems.
Sensory problems, including sensory over-responsivity, sensory under-responsivity, and sensory seeking are also common problems in children with ASD. In typical children, sensory problems have been associated with aggressive and externalizing behavior problems. Similarly, recent studies have been found correlations between sensory problems and broadly defined externalizing problem behaviors in children with ASD. However, research has yet to specifically examine the potential contributing role of sensory problems in predicting physical aggression.
Self-injurious behavior also appears to be relevant to the occurrence of aggression. Individuals with ASD are at an increased risk for demonstrating self-injurious behaviors, as compared to those without ASD, with prevalence rates ranging from 30% to 53%. Although self-injury and other forms of challenging behaviors have been considered to be distinct forms of behavior, they are often related. For example, physical aggression and self-injury have been significantly associated among individuals with severe intellectual impairment and there is evidence that self-injurious behaviors are precursors of later aggression in this population. However, similar studies have not investigated the relationship between self-injury and physical aggression in children with ASD.
Lastly, gastrointestinal (GI) problems may also have relevance to the occurrence of aggression. GI problems are common in children with ASD, with prevalence rates ranging from 24% to 70% or higher, depending on symptom definitions. Although there some evidence of an association between behavior problems and GI problems in ASD, a population-based study of children with ASD did not find significant differences in aggression when comparing children with and without GI problems.
                                                                     Current Research
Although the nature and developmental course of aggression have been a focus of research with typically developing populations, there have been few large-scale studies of group-level predictors of aggression among individuals with ASD. Consequently, it is unclear whether findings from the general population are applicable to children and adolescents with ASD. In an effort to investigate the extent of the problem in children and adolescents with ASD, a recent large-scale study published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders examined the prevalence and correlates of physical aggression in a sample of 1584 children and adolescents with ASD enrolled in the Autism Treatment Network (ATN), a multi-site network of 17 autism centers across the US and Canada. Participants in the study ranged in age from 2 to 17 years, with a mean age of 5.91 years. The term “aggression” referred specifically to physical aggression and included biting, hitting, or other physical aggression directed towards others. A number of diagnostic, medical, and behavioral measures were collected at enrollment and at regular follow-up intervals. Measures of interest included: (a) aggression, (b) sleep disturbance, (c) sensory problems, (d) communication and social functioning, (e) self-injury and gastrointestinal problems, (f) cognitive functioning, and (g) verbal/nonverbal status. Data analyses were completed in order to identify the variables most strongly associated with aggression.
                                Prevalence, Correlates and Predictors of Aggression
The results indicated that the prevalence of aggression was 53% across the entire sample of children, with highest prevalence among young children. These results are highly consistent with recently reported prevalence rates (56%) in another large-scale study of children and adolescents with ASD. The results also indicate that age-related decreases in aggression in children with ASD are similar to what has been observed in typically developing children. It should be noted, however, that a large percentage (nearly 50%) of the adolescents in the study’s sample continued to demonstrate physical aggression. Thus, the relative decrease in aggression over time must be balanced by the finding that these behaviors continued to occur at a high rate among a large portion of adolescents with ASD.
In terms of predictors, the results indicated that self-injury was highly associated with aggression among children with ASD. This is consistent with the findings of other studies showing a strong association between self-injury and other challenging behaviors. The current results add to existing literature, and suggest that children with ASD who demonstrate self-injury may be at risk for more severe behavioral problems.
Sleep problems emerged as a second significant predictor aggression. This association between sleep problems and aggression is largely consistent with previous findings among both typically developing children and those with ASD, indicating may underlie (and exacerbate) aggressive behavior patterns for many children with ASD. It should also be noted that sleep problems have been found to be associated with self-injurious behaviors among individuals with intellectual disabilities and that these two conditions may be related. In fact, there is some developing evidence suggesting shared neurobiological basis for both sleep disturbance and self-injurious behavior.
Sensory problems were also significantly associated with aggression. These findings are consistent with similar associations between sensory issues and aggression among typically developing children. While previous research has demonstrated an association between sensory problems and broadly defined behavior problems, the current results extend these previous findings by demonstrating a specific relationship between sensory problems and physical aggression.
Comparisons also indicated that children with aggression were more likely to experience GI problems, communication skill difficulties, and social skills difficulties. However, these variables did not appear as significant predictors of aggression, indicating that self-injury, sleep problems, and sensory issues accounted for the majority of the variance in predicting aggression.
In terms of potential sex differences, the results indicate that girls and boys with ASD were equally likely to engage in aggression. This finding was unexpected in that research has consistently shown a significant gender difference among children without ASD, with boys being much more likely to engage in physical aggression than girls. The results of the study suggest that the sex differential in aggression may not be salient in the ASD population.
This study provides evidence that aggression may be much more prevalent among children with ASD than in the general population and that some co-occurring problems may place individuals at risk for aggression. Aggression was significantly associated with a number of clinical features, including self-injury, sleep problems, sensory problems, GI problems, and communication and social functioning. However, self-injury, sleep problems, and sensory problems were most strongly associated with aggression. These findings indicate that co-occurring problems specific to the ASD phenotype may play an important role in the occurrence of aggression and that it is important to consider multiple domains of functioning when assessing and treating aggression in children with ASD. For example, increased attention should be given to the identification and treatment of sleep problems, self-injury, and sensory problems. Given the significant relationship between sleep problems and aggression, it is possible that treatments targeting sleep problems may help reduce maladaptive behavior. Thus, assessment and treatment of sleeping problems might be included as a standard and integrated part of the assessment and treatment of ASD. Programs for children with ASD should also integrate an appropriately structured physical and sensory milieu in order to accommodate any unique sensory processing challenges. Although assessment tools are limited, comorbid problems should be assessed whenever significant behavioral issues (e.g., inattention, mood instability, anxiety, sleep disturbance, aggression) become evident or when major changes in behavior are reported. Coexisting disorders should also be carefully investigated when severe or worsening symptoms are present that are not responding to traditional methods of intervention.
Of course, more research is needed in order to better understand the characteristics and course of different types of aggression. For example, future research should examine the longitudinal course of aggression, the role of these associated problems in predicting improvement or worsening of aggression, and possible changes in aggression in response to treatment for these co-occurring problems. Studies are also needed to examine the role of additional family- and community-level variables in the prediction and maintenance of aggression among children with ASD.  
Mazurek, M. O., Kanne, S. M., & Wodka, E. L. (2013).  Physical aggression in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 455–465

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Video Game Use and Boys on the Autism Spectrum

Research indicates that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often have strong preferences for screen-based media, particularly video games. Although a large body of research has demonstrated a clear effect of both video game content and genre on behavior problems among typically developing children and adolescents, the relationship between these variables has not been previously examined among children with ASD. A recent study examined the relationships between aspects of video game use and problem behaviors among a sample of 169 boys (ages 8–18) with ASD. Parents reported on their children's behavioral functioning and video game habits and preferences, including the average number of hours spent playing video games per day, preferred game types (genres), and problematic (e.g., addictive) video game play patterns.  
 The results indicated that amount of game play alone (an average of 2.4 hours a day) was not associated with problem behaviors. Rather, the most reliable predictors of problem behaviors, even when controlling for age and amount of time spent playing video games, were video game genre and problematic, or addictive, qualities of play. Specifically, significant positive relationships were found between problematic video games use and both inattention and oppositional symptoms. Boys who played Role-Playing (genre) games had higher levels of both problematic game use and oppositional behavior. Interestingly, however, hyperactivity was not significantly associated with either problematic video game use or video game genre. Lastly, educational and sports games predicted less oppositional behavior. 
The results of this study are consistent, in part, with findings from the general population. For example, the significant association between problematic video game play, inattention, and oppositional behavior reported in the study is similar to those reported in adolescents and adults without ASD. The finding that Role-Playing games were highly associated with problematic video game play and externalizing problem behavior is also consistent with previous research among individuals without ASD

This study underlines the clinical importance of examining video game use patterns among children with ASD, and points to a need for future experimental and longitudinal research in this area. For example, Role-Playing games may contribute to an even greater potential for problematic game use patterns among children with ASD, given their particular game-design features. Since children with ASD tend to engage in restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBs), they might be at higher risk for developing addictive game play patterns. Preoccupation with video games and trouble disengaging from them may serve as antecedents for disruptive behavior, as has been anecdotally reported among other children. It appears that for children with ASD, the potential for preoccupation represents a key game play quality that relates closely with the occurrence of problem behaviors. Future research in this area is critical in order to inform video game use recommendations for both parents and clinicians. As emerging research investigates the effectiveness of video-game based interventions for improving functional outcomes, it will be equally important to understand the mechanisms and nature of problematic aspects of game play among children with ASD.
Mazurek, M.O. & Engelhardt, C.R. (2013). Video game use and problem behaviors in boys with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 316-324.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Dr. Wilkinson is also editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.

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