Heightened anxiety in autism

CC BY-NC-ND by Mari Z.

In these days of greater focus on the presentation of autism outside of just the core triad (or dyad depending on your diagnostic definition) of behaviours, one issue crops up time and time again: anxiety.

For anyone with either personal or professional experience / interest in autism, the findings from Hallett and colleagues* talking about the presentation of anxiety running alongside cases of autism will come as little surprise. The novelty of their results comes however with the assertion that unaffected co-twins of children with autism may also encounter increased anxiety despite not presenting as having autism.

Based on participants taking part in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), researchers looked at a number of twin pairs of children where one or both were diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or where one twin presented with subclinical autistic traits reflective of the broader autism phenotype (BAP) or was unaffected by autism. Scores on various measures pertinent to the appearance of autistic traits and the presence of different types of anxiety related symptoms were gathered.

The results were in line with a growing evidence base suggestive that various types of anxiety may be a frequent passenger alongside a diagnosis of autism. Further that children presenting with more subtle signs and symptoms of autism reflective of the BAP might also be more likely to present with anxiety-related symptoms. That also unaffected twins were reported to show greater anxiety symptoms than an independent control group was an eye-opener. This finding also having potentially important implications when it comes to determining how autism and anxiety may be related.

There is a growing appreciation that whilst autism can present its own challenges in terms of daily living and quality of life, comorbid conditions such as anxiety can also exert a significant effect. In some cases, the presence of anxiety can be utterly disabling perhaps even above and beyond the impact of more core autistic symptoms. Whilst further research is needed to both elucidate the complex relationship between autism and anxiety, the accompanying issue of whether treating or managing anxiety symptoms may be able to impact on quality of life for people with autism represents an equally important area of investigation.


* Hallett V. et al. Exploring anxiety symptoms in a large-scale twin study of children with autism spectrum disorders, their co-twins and controls. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2013 Nov;54(11):1176-85.

Further commentary on this study can be found at: http://questioning-answers.blogspot.com/2013/12/heightened-anxiety-children-with-autism.html


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About Paul Whiteley Ph.D.

Researcher based in North East England. An academic background in psychology with a special interest in developmental psychology focused specifically on the autism spectrum and related conditions. Postgraduate degrees based on research examining the safety and efficacy of a gluten- and casein-free (GFCF) diet applied to autism and the potential importance of various comorbidity to the health and wellbeing of those on the autism spectrum, with a continuing research interest in these areas. Keen blogger and amateur science writer (but no formal qualifications in these areas). Science is based on probability.