New autism study shows relationship with fear and anxiety

By on January 6, 2013.

A new study conducted by a BYU professor and two students shows that the severity of autism for children may be caused by fear.

Psychology professor Mikle South discussed that when talking with parents who have children with autism, parents often discuss the difficulties they face everyday when trying to get their children to adapt with life changes as well as changes in daily routines.

Professor Mikle South and his son demonstrate how the experiment worked. (Photo courtesy Jonathan Hardy)

“A lot of children and adults who are diagnosed with autism also have a lot of anxiety,” South said.

South explained that in this particular study they were interested in finding out how children with autism learn about fear and how that relates to anxiety. He said that a lot of times children with autism don’t know what to expect, and this makes them afraid.

Paul Chamberlain, 23, a neuroscience major who was a part of the study, explained that the study showed that children with autism can learns things by rules just fine. However, when the rules switch or change, it takes them much longer to learn the new rules, and this can often transfer to anxiety.

“A lot of children with anxiety want things planned out,” Chamberlain said.

Parents can help their children with autism by explaining the daily plan to their kids, Chamberlain explained.

Tiffani Newton, who studied neuroscience at BYU but graduated in June 2012, was also a part of this study with Professor South.

Newton said that since children with autism have such a hard time making changes, parents can help by giving their children an overview of the day and prepping them if there will be changes in their normal daily routines. This helps to assure them that everything will be alright and that they will be okay, Newton discussed.

“They have a different way of seeing things,” Newton said.

Newton explained that typical children can easily adapt to a schedule change that a teacher makes and not even really think about. Children with autism can’t just make that switch automatically, Newton said.

South also discussed that children who had a more difficult time trying to learn what was safe is now not a threat and vice versa in the experiment, were negatively correlated with symptoms of repetitiveness and rigidness. The harder it was for them to make that distinction, the more symptoms of repetitiveness and rigidness they have.

“This was one of the first studies that’s shown this experimentally,” Chamberlain said.