A University of South Florida clinic in St. Petersburg, FL, is conducting a two-year federal trial testing the effectiveness of behavioral psychotherapy in treating anxiety among young adolescents with autism.
The University of South Florida is one three sites for the $1-million study, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD).
According to the clinic, autism spectrum disorders, collectively referred to as autism, cause pervasive impairment in thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others and can range from a severe form (called autistic disorder) to a much milder form known as Asperger syndrome.
Experts believe anxiety disorders affect as many as 80 percent of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. The anxiety attacks trigger distress and impairment over and above that caused by an autism diagnosis alone, said Eric Storch, PhD, principal investigator for the multi-site trial and associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at USF Health.
“As yet, there are no tried-and-true methods for treating the anxiety that often accompanies autism,” Dr. Storch said. “Cognitive behavioral therapy has worked very well for typically developing kids with anxiety. The goal of this study is to adapt this therapy for use in early adolescents with autism and co-occurring anxiety.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves exposing a patient to what they fear in controlled, graduated doses in an attempt to decrease their anxiety over time and prevent a compulsive or avoidance response. It has become a gold standard treatment for youngsters with anxiety disorders who do not have complicating conditions like autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The researchers will first adapt a CBT protocol they have developed for younger children to meet the characteristics and clinical needs of early adolescents (ages 11 to 14) with autism. They will accomplish this by treating numerous youngsters and consulting with other autism experts.
Then, the team will enroll 32 adolescents with autism in a randomized trial across the sites. The participants will receive either the newly developed CBT protocol or a modified relaxation training protocol (control group). Those who receive the control treatment will receive CBT afterward.
“Considering the rising number of young adolescents diagnosed with autism, and the lack of proven treatment options for those suffering from anxiety,” Dr. Storch said, “our work developing a treatment protocol could substantially help address the mental health needs of early adolescents with autism.”