Children with autism showing increasing anxiety through primary school – study

A world-first autism study has foundhighlevels ofanxiety in childrenas young as five years oldwith autism attending Australian schools, and that levels of generalised anxiety increase as they get older.

Published in theJournalof School Psychologythisweek, the study surveyed teachersusing a standardised ranking method to identify anxiety symptomsof 92 children aged 5-12 yearsin mainstream and special schools.

Researchers from the Griffith University Autism Centre of Excellence analysed two groups of children — thosewho had just startedschool andthose about tomovefrom primary to high school.

“Forty per cent of people on the autism spectrum will receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis,butthat’s not the whole story. We’re nowfinding thatalmostthree-quarters of children with autism are impacted by high anxiety levels,’’ says lead author Dr Dawn Adams.

“Despite this,thereis scant researchexploring anxiety in children with autism at schooland almost no work looking athowanxietymight differ in a school setting to that at home.

“Understanding anxiety in children on the autism spectrum within the school context is critical to develop supports and identifying strategies to minimise the impact oneducation, learning and health.”

The researchers found more than a quarter of children with autismwere scared ofmaking mistakes at school and almost a third hesitate in starting or worry whether they understood a task before starting.

This can then impactupon their learning experienceand reducetheir self-esteem.In contrast,less than one in 10children “often” or “always” reportedphysical signs of anxiety, such asfeelingshaky when they have a problem (8.7%).

In the study,teachers reported higher levels ofgeneralisedanxietyin childrenattending mainstream schools, but this difference was not present forsocial anxiety. Generalised anxiety ischaracterised by excessiveworrying about events and activities while social anxiety is related toworrying aboutsocial interaction difficulties.

Parent-reported symptomswere also included in the study which found that teachers and parents agreed on the frequency of anxiety-related symptoms 50.8% of thetime.

“This suggests that anxietyinchildren with autismmay sometimespresent differently at home and at school, further highlighting the need for more research to look at anxiety in autism at school,’’ Dr Adams said.

“This research is important becauseifanxiety is not recognised, it cannot be supported ortreated.

“We know that anxietycan impact upon a child’s educational performance,affectrecall of academic knowledgeand result inpoorer academic grades andlower overall school performance. Working together across home and school to identify, recognise and support anxiety in children with autism should therefore increase academic outcomes and success.”