New research shows that children with autism have a hard time letting go of old, outdated fears.
Furthermore, this rigid fearfulness is linked to the severity of classic symptoms of autism, such as repetitive movements and resistance to change.
“People with autism likely don’t experience or understand their world in the same way we do,” said Mikle South, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Brigham Young University and lead author of the study.
“Since they can’t change the rules in their brain, and often don’t know what to expect from their environment, we need to help them plan ahead for what to expect.”
For parents and others who work with children diagnosed with autism, the new research emphasizes the need to help children make emotional transitions, especially when they are fearful.
In the study, South and his team observed 30 children diagnosed with autism and 29 without. After seeing a visual cue like a yellow card, the participants would feel a harmless but surprising puff of air under their chins.
Part-way into the experiment, the circumstances changed so that a different color was shown just before the puff of air. The researchers measured the children’s skin response to determine whether their nervous system noticed the switch and knew what was coming.
“Typical kids learn quickly to anticipate based on the new color instead of the old one,” South said. “It takes a lot longer for children with autism to learn to make the change.”
The length of time it took the children to let go of the original fear correlated with the severity of hallmark symptoms of autism.
“We see a strong connection between anxiety and the repetitive behaviors,” South said. “We’re linking symptoms used to diagnose autism with emotion difficulties not usually considered as a classic symptom of autism.”
The persistence of needless fears is harmful to physical health. If the fear is sustained over time, the elevated hormone levels that aid us in an actual fight or flight scenario will cause damage to the brain and the body.
“In talking to parents, we hear that living with classic symptoms of autism is one thing, but dealing with their children’s worries all the time is the greater challenge,” South said. “It may not be an entirely separate direction to study their anxiety because it now appears to be related.”
The study is published in the journal Autism Research.
Source: Brigham Young University