A world-first autism study has found high levels of anxiety in children as young as five years old with autism attending Australian primary schools.
The study, by the Griffith University Autism Centre of Excellence, also found that levels of generalised anxiety increase as they get older.
Researchers from the centre surveyed teachers using a standardised ranking method to identify anxiety symptoms of 92 children aged 5-12 years in mainstream and special schools.
They 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,” the study’s lead author, Dr Dawn Adams, said in a statement on the university’s website.
“We’re now finding that almost three-quarters of children with autism are impacted by high anxiety levels.”
Despite this, Dr Adams said 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,” Dr Adams said.
According to the study, 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.”
Dr Adams said 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,” she said.