University Programs that Help Autistic Children Cope with Anxiety

Drawing made by a child at Temple University's Coping Cat Program | The Philadelphia Inquirer

Drawing made by a child at Temple University’s Coping Cat Program | The Philadelphia Inquirer

For an autistic child, all kinds of issues can arise which may seem trite to most; but for them, even pizza bubbles could trigger anxiety.

Between 40 and 60 percent of people on the spectrum suffer from at least one anxiety disorder, while around 20 percent report living with more than one. Research programs to discover more information about these symptoms have conducted some interesting work recently, notably those at Temple University, Drexel, and UCLA.

Conner Kerns works as an assistant professor at A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Kerns has experienced a lack of effective treatment for anxiety disorders in people with autism. The current methods for treating anxiety disorder are not usually designed for those affected by autism.

Children with autism, for instance, are often disgruntled at a small change in routine. These atypical triggers are specifically associated with symptoms of autism, so a specialized knowledge and diagnosis is required for effective treatment.

Kerns is now developing a specialized diagnostic criteria for autism-associated anxiety disorders, which includes the trademark characteristics of social and communication difficulty and repetitive actions. She attributes the lack of comprehensive understanding about autism-specific anxiety disorders on clinicians’ tendency to group all symptoms under the broader disorder.

The need for proper treatment, however is apparent as the children grow older. In the state of Pennsylvania, it is projected that 36,000 adults will be seeking treatment for autism. In a 2011 survey, between 20 and 50 percent of children and adults in the state reported that their mental health care needs were not being met. This includes anxiety disorders.

Philip Kendall is the director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic. With the help of Conner Kerns, a former student of his, he will be carrying out in-depth research on anxiety disorder treatment for autistic children using two psychosocial treatments.

One of these projects is The Coping Cat Program, which was created by Kerns 20 years ago. This program runs for 16 weeks and teaches children to first recognize the signs of anxiety, such as increased heart rate and shaking. They are then taught how to cope with this anxiety, which requires them to expose themselves to their triggers in order to deal with them. The children must go to crowded places with unfamiliar people and alter their routines in order to face their fears; sitting around and talking about them is simply not enough.

The second program children will be participating in is called the BIACA (Behavioral Interventions for Anxiety in Children with Autism) program. BIACA will build on the methodology of The Coping Cat program, but sessions will be tailored for kids on the autistic spectrum. Treatment includes more parental involvement and emphasizes social skills, and a reward system is implemented to mark progress.

Both of these programs will be studied for their effectiveness, and will include a control group of children who receive no treatment. Researchers want to know which of these programs is most effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety. They are also paying special attention to whether each program reduces autism-linked symptoms.