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Exploring the Relationship Between Autism and Anxiety

Published on December 17, 2012 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 1 year ago


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Autism 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.