1 As ASD by definition involves deficits in communication and interaction, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders in this population can present a significant challenge.
Sean is a 9-year-old boy in the fourth grade diagnosed with ASD. He is in a regular education classroom setting. Until this year, his grades have been above average. This year his mother has been getting calls from the teachers reporting that he is disruptive in class, and is having difficulty paying attention unless the subject relates to a specific interest of his. At home, his mother has been struggling to get him to do chores and homework, and even sitting at the dinner table is now a battle. He is significantly more irritable than usual. While he always preferred routines and familiar activities, deviations from them now trigger strong reactions and sometimes tantrums. He has started to insist on staying up late, and refuses to go to bed without his mother present. Notably his mother reports that she and Sean’s father recently separated, and that she believes he is very upset by this, although he refuses to talk about it.
This case highlights the diagnostic complexity with which children with ASD may present. With the overlap between some of the core symptoms of ASD and anxiety, as well as the potential for other co-occurring disorders, a number of factors need to be explored before arriving at a treatment plan.
In evaluating behavior changes in children with ASD, I find it most helpful to start by looking for any medical or environmental factors. Medical problems such as illness or gastrointestinal difficulties may contribute to behavioral challenges and anxiety. Also, be sure to inquire if there are any precipitating events or change in the environment which might correlate with the change in behavior. In this case, we do have a situation – namely Sean’s parents separating – that may be contributing. While addressing Sean’s thoughts and feelings about this remains challenging, awareness of this factor certainly is important.
Understanding the educational setting and supports of a child with ASD is of significant importance. Academic challenges may result from learning or language difficulties, which can result in significant stress. While the vignette mentions that Sean’s grades had previously been above average, it is possible that increased complexity of material is contributing to his school struggles.
Next, it is worth looking at the question of whether Sean meets criteria for ADHD, which is estimated to occur in 30%-61% of people with ASD. In the case vignette, the mention of disruptions and attentional difficulties in the classroom warrant further investigation.
Finally, the question of whether insistence on routine, strong reactions to unfamiliar circumstances, disruptive behavior, and irritability meet criteria for an anxiety disorder is a complex one. Children with ASD may have difficulty communicating that they are anxious, making the behavioral observations of those around them especially important. An advantage pediatric primary care providers have in this circumstance is longitudinal experience with the child and family, which can help confirm whether the problem perceived as anxiety is a manifestation of core autism symptoms, or newer-onset phenomena. Assessing the severity and settings of the behavior also is necessary to guide treatment decisions. In the vignette, Sean’s irritability, acting out, and bedtime difficulties all are of relatively new onset, and occurring across multiple settings with significant functional consequences, making a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder the likely explanation.
As for treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective for anxiety in children with high functioning ASD.2 If a clinician with experience with this population is available, that certainly is preferred. If medication is being considered, there are no randomized controlled trials that have demonstrated efficacy of medication for anxiety specifically in children with co-occurring ASD. Treatment recommendations are taken from studies in typically developing children,3 where the SSRIs fluoxetine and sertraline have demonstrated efficacy in treatment of anxiety. When opting for pharmacotherapy in children with ASD, starting low, going slow, and carefully monitoring for side effects is recommended. Regardless of the method of treatment, a clear definition of the target symptoms ahead of time is critical for monitoring response and evaluating treatment effect.
Dr. Hoffnung is a pediatric psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, both in Burlington. He said he had no relevant financial disclosures. Email him at.