Autism severity may stem from fear

(Medical Xpress)—Most people know when to be afraid and when it's ok to calm down.

But new research on shows that children with the diagnosis struggle to let go of old, outdated fears. Even more significantly, the Brigham Young University study found that this rigid fearfulness is linked to the severity of classic symptoms of autism, such as repeated movements and resistance to change.

For parents and others who work with children diagnosed with autism, the new research highlights the need to help children make emotional transitions – particularly when dealing with their fears.

"People with autism likely don't experience or understand their world in the same way we do," said Mikle South, a at BYU 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."

In their study, South and two of his undergraduate neuroscience students – Tiffani Newton and Paul Chamberlain – recruited 30 children diagnosed with autism and 29 without to participate in an experiment. 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 through the experiment, the conditions changed so that a different color preceded the puff of air. The researchers measured participants' skin response to see if 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 amount of time it took to extinguish the original fear correlated with the severity of of autism.

"We see a strong connection between anxiety and the ," 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 detrimental to physical health. The elevated hormone levels that aid us in an actual fight or flight scenario will cause damage to the brain and the body if sustained over time.

And the families who participate in social skills groups organized by South and his students can relate to the new findings.

"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."

Related Stories

Autism researchers make exciting strides

Dec 12, 2011

Teaching young children with autism to imitate others may improve a broader range of social skills, according to a new study by a Michigan State University scholar.

Earlier autism diagnosis could mean earlier interventions

Oct 13, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Autism is normally diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3. But new research is finding symptoms of autism spectrum disorders in babies as young as 12 months. If children could be diagnosed earlier, it might ...

No link found between autism and celiac disease

May 01, 2007

Contrary to previous studies, autistic children are no more likely than other children to have celiac disease, according to new research that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 59th Annual Meeting ...

Epilepsy drug may increase risk of autism in children

Dec 01, 2008

A new study shows that women who take the epilepsy drug valproate while pregnant may significantly increase their child's risk of developing autism. The preliminary research is published in the December 2, 2008, print issue ...

Recommended for you

Why do people with autism see faces differently?

Nov 26, 2014

The way people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) gather information - not the judgement process itself - might explain why they gain different perceptions from peoples' faces, according to a new study from ...

How does the brain develop in individuals with autism?

Nov 12, 2014

Geneticists at Heidelberg University Hospital's Department of Molecular Human Genetics have used a new mouse model to demonstrate the way a certain genetic mutation is linked to a type of autism in humans and affects brain ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.