A world-first autism study has found high levels of anxiety in children as young as five years old with autism attending Australian schools, and that levels of generalised anxiety increase as they get older.
Published in the Journal of School Psychology this week, the study surveyed teachers using a standardised ranking method to identify anxiety symptoms of 92 children aged 5-12 years in mainstream and special schools.
Researchers from the Griffith University Autism Centre of Excellence analysed two groups of children – those who had just started school and those about to move from primary to high school.
“Forty per cent of people on the autism spectrum will receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis, but that’s not the whole story. We’re now finding that almost three-quarters of children with autism are impacted by high anxiety levels,’’ says lead author Dr Dawn Adams.
“Despite this, there is scant research exploring anxiety in children with autism at school and almost no work looking at how anxiety might differ in a school setting to that at home.
“Understanding anxiety in children on the autism spectrum within the school context is critical to develop supports and identifying strategies to minimise the impact on education, learning and health.”
The researchers found more than a quarter of children with autism were scared of making mistakes at school and almost a third hesitate in starting or worry whether they understood a task before starting.
This can then impact upon their learning experience and reduce their self-esteem. In contrast, less than one in 10 children “often” or “always” reported physical signs of anxiety, such as feeling shaky when they have a problem (8.7%).
In the study, teachers reported higher levels of generalised anxiety in children attending mainstream schools, but this difference was not present for social anxiety. Generalised anxiety is characterised by excessive worrying about events and activities while social anxiety is related to worrying about social interaction difficulties.
Parent-reported symptoms were also included in the study which found that teachers and parents agreed on the frequency of anxiety-related symptoms 50.8% of the time.
“This suggests that anxiety in children with autism may sometimes present differently at home and at school, further highlighting the need for more research to look at anxiety in autism at school,’’ Dr Adams said.
“This research is important because if anxiety is not recognised, it cannot be supported or treated.
“We know that anxiety can impact upon a child’s educational performance, affect recall of academic knowledge and result in poorer academic grades and lower overall school performance. Working together across home and school to identify, recognise and support anxiety in children with autism should therefore increase academic outcomes and success.”