Emotional Impact of Autism

CHOP Researcher John Herrington Takes a Closer Look at Autism and Anxiety

Center for Autism Research

John Herrington, associate director of the developmental neuroimaging laboratory at the Center for Autism Research (CAR), researches the neurobiology of emotion and social processes in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). He is particularly interested in understanding the emotional experiences of individuals with ASD, a topic often overlooked by scientists and service providers alike. Below Herrington shares his insight on the emotional aspects of autism and his commitment to shed much-needed light on this issue.

Q: What are emotional issues children with ASDs face?

Herrington: It's becoming clearer and clearer that folks with autism, particularly folks on the higher functioning end of autism, have really high incidences of anxiety disorders. A lot of energy and resources are devoted to behavior management; teaching them how to regulate themselves, be well behaved, do well in school so they can go on and lead productive lives. But I think what often gets forgotten is that these kids have emotional and mental lives. And a lot of these kids are showing classic anxiety disorder responses to the world around them.

One of the cardinal characteristics of autism is stereotyped behavior, motor movements, hand flapping, what is called stimulating behavior. I'm one among many scientists who now believe that these behaviors are not a motor problem but an anxiety problem. That children are actually trying to calm themselves down and this is how they're doing it. It's coming out of motor movements but it's actually self-emotion regulation.

Q: How are you tackling this issue?

Herrington: I'm trying to take the literature on pediatric anxiety disorders and the brain systems involved and bring it back to autism. I am planning a study using a series of classic anxiety tasks in which I'll show kids different pictures and measure their heart rate, sweat, skin conductance and muscle activity using a bioharness. We're also doing mainstream anxiety assessments. Participants will get a diagnostic workup and we'll give families a report and hold a feedback session.

Q: How important is this issue for families of children with ASDs?

Herrington: I think people are more and more interested in what the interior lives of these kids really are like, including parents. There is an increasing awareness among families about the usefulness and value of thinking about the emotional lives of their kids, particularly as they get older. And I think there's increasing motivation among families to try to deal with their children's anxiety as an emotional, psychological thing rather than just trying to behaviorally manage it.

Q: What do you hope your research accomplishes?

Herrington: It would validate the use of mainstream treatments for anxiety in kids for use in autism. There are behavioral and medical treatments out there. The more firmly we establish a link between anxiety and autism, the more sense it will make to start trying to use some of these treatments in autism to try to help these kids.

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