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Autism and anxiety in kids: Research identifies keys to effective therapy

Parental involvement and long-term interventions are key to helping children with autism cope with anxiety-related disorders, according to a first-of-its-kind research review conducted at Texas A&M University.

Anxiety in children with autism can hurt their social and emotional outcomes, relationships with peers and educational performance.

“We are just beginning to understand internalizing problems for children with autism, including anxiety-related disorders. In education, we tend to focus more on the externalizing side of the equation and neglect internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety, which are equally important for school success,” said Mack Burke, associate professor of special education.

Burke and a former graduate student, Celal Perihan, now an assistant professor at Idaho State University, sought to learn more about treatment options for children with autism also suffering from anxiety.

An emerging treatment option is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. The primary goal of CBT is to teach individuals to identify irrational beliefs, monitor automatic thoughts and replace those thoughts with more realistic and adaptive ones.

“The main idea of CBT is that our fault thoughts affect both feelings and behaviors directly. If we are able to change the fault thoughts, we are also able to change the feelings and behaviors of an individual,” said Perihan.

Burke and Perihan wanted to further investigate the efficacy of CBT. They took it a step further than previous studies by looking at the impact of parent involvement and treatment length. This is the first meta-analysis to examine the impacts of these variables. 

They reviewed 23 studies involving CBT for children with autism. 

They found short-term interventions had a smaller impact than long-term interventions. They believe the main reason for the difference is that using cognitive skills takes longer for children with autism and they need more time to understand and apply new strategies for coping with their feelings.

Treatments with parental involvement also showed a larger impact. Burke and Perihan said this is likely because parents also benefit from the treatment.

“Studies show that parents of children with autism also show some symptoms of parental stress and anxiety problems and these problems intensify anxiety in their children,” said Perihan.