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Rigid Fearfulness is Linked to Severity of Autism

First Posted: Nov 30, 2012 02:12 AM EST

Autism is one of the most complex neurodevelopment disorders that manifests in early childhood and is characterized by impaired social interactions, repetitive behavior and communication problems. Autism affects boys more often than girls.

Autism has always been a challenging condition for children and their families, but the outlook today is much better than it was a generation ago. 

Researchers at  Brigham University have discovered that children with autism find it difficult to let go of old, outdated fears.

They  also found a strong association between rigid fearfulness and severity of classic symptoms of autism such as repeated movements and resistance to change.

The study addresses parents and care givers of autistic children who need help to make emotional transitions. This is needed especially when they are dealing with fears.

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

For this study 30 children were recruited who had autism and 29 children who didn't. The research was done by South and two of his undergraduate neuroscience students, Tiffani Newton and Paul Chamberlain. In a visual experiment, when the kids viewed a yellow card, they 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 turn off the original fear was associated with the severity of characteristic 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 families who participated 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."

The complete study appears in the journal Autism Research.

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