Pilot Research Prevents Anxiety Problems in Young Children with Autism

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
N. L. Bischof1, R. M. Rapee2, K. Hudry3,4 and J. K. Bayer1,5,6, (1)School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, (2)Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, (3)Victorian Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Center, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, Melbourne, Australia, (4)Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, (5)Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia, (6)Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
Background: Autism is highly comorbid with anxiety. Meta-analysis of studies of children and adolescents with autism report prevalence of anxiety disorders at 40% (Steensel, Bogels & Perrin, 2011). Research with school age children with autism finds that cognitive behavioural treatment reduces comorbid anxiety (Chalfant, Rapee & Carroll, 2007; Sukhodolsky, Bloch, Panza & Reichow, 2013). To date there have been no published early intervention studies for anxiety among preschool children with autism.

Objectives: This pilot study aimed to explore acceptability to parents and outcomes for young children with autism of a preventive intervention for anxiety problems. The study focused on children with autism who were participating in a wider population-based randomised trial of the Cool Little Kids parenting group program.

Methods: The population trial included 545 temperamentally inhibited preschool children recruited across eight economically diverse areas of Melbourne, Australia. Within this sample, 26 parents reported that their child had received an autism diagnosis. The trial measures included baseline inhibited temperament and developmental problems, post-intervention quantitative and qualitative feedback on the program, and child mental health outcomes (anxiety diagnoses and internalising symptoms) one and two years post baseline.

Results: The rate of autism cases in the sample of inhibited young children was 4.8%, or one in 20, compared to population prevalence estimates between 1 and 2%. Sample retention over two years for children with autism in the trial was strong (92%). At follow up, fewer intervention than control children with autism had anxiety disorders (25% vs. 77%, p = .03) and separation anxiety symptoms (M (SD) = 4.22 (2.68) vs. 9.38 (5.91), p = .03). Parents of children with autism in the trial intervention arm reported that Cool Little Kids was "quite useful" in relation to their child’s anxiety but also gave feedback that they would appreciate some tailoring of program content to the context of autism.

Conclusions: These pilot findings suggest that Cool Little Kids may be helpful for reducing comorbid anxiety in young children with autism. This warrants further research to develop an autism-specific adaptation that can be trialed with a larger sample of children with corroborated autism diagnosis.