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December 13, 2016

Untangling anxiety symptoms in children with autism

Drexel health professor devises method to differentiate, detect anxiety in children on spectrum

Diagnosing and treating anxiety in children on the autism spectrum can be tricky since both disorders often share similar symptoms, such as avoidance of social situations.

Now a new method devised by Connor Kerns, Ph.D., an assistant research professor in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, has found a way to differentiate and detect symptoms of the two disorders, which could be crucial for the child’s overall treatment and wellbeing.

Kerns’ Autism Spectrum Addendum (ASA) adds autism-specific modifications to existing anxiety evaluations, which are often conducted by both the child with autism and his or her primary caregiver. 

As noted in a report on Kerns’ method by DrexelNow, children with autism often have difficulties expressing themselves, leaving it up to their parents to discern whether their behavior is actually a symptom of autism or of anxiety.

But because those symptoms are sometimes difficult to tell apart, even for parents, clearer clinical guidelines were both necessary and crucial.

To see if her method worked, Kerns tested it on 69 children with autism who also “had a concern about anxiety, but no prior diagnosis." The results showed that her method was a reliable tool in assessing and detecting if the child did, in fact, have an underlying anxiety disorder.

Kerns also told DrexelNow that the majority of children with autism who receive therapy for diagnosed anxiety disorders rate their condition as becoming “improved” or “very improved." 

“While autism may make it difficult for you to know what to do in social situations, anxiety makes it difficult to look at your strengths and challenges in an even way,” Kerns told DrexelNow. “This is a particularly pernicious threat, in my opinion, because it can prevent individuals from coping with and, eventually, overcoming real challenges in their lives and seeking out opportunities and experiences, such as education, social interaction and employment, that are crucial to their development.”

Her ASA method, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, can help to overcome that.

Read more at DrexelNow.

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