Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


47th Annual Convention; Online; 2021

All times listed are Eastern time (GMT-4 at the time of the convention in May).

Event Details

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Paper Session #285
Autism: A Separate Spectrum or a Continuation of Anxiety?
Sunday, May 30, 2021
3:30 PM–3:55 PM
Area: AUT
Instruction Level: Basic
Chair: Stephanie Northington, PhD (PACES, LLC)

Autism: A Separate Spectrum or a Continuation of Anxiety?

Domain: Theory
STEPHANIE NORTHINGTON, PHD (PACES, LLC), Keisha Nagai (PACES, LLC), Kirsten Canada (PACES, LLC), Helen Christine Shelton (Chancelight)

Background: Kanner (1943) first published scientific findings regarding individuals with autism. Initially, autism was viewed as a lifelong condition initially diagnosed during infancy or childhood, due to presentation of key symptoms (Whiteley et al., 2019). However, there is growing evidence that autism is more heterogeneous than originally thought, and that autism is not necessarily a lifelong condition (Whiteley et al., 2019). Furthermore, it is apparent that there is an increased likelihood that those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also develop an anxiety disorder; the reasons for the anxiety disorder are very similar to those individuals that are neurotypical (Kerns et al., 2016). Objectives: To examine the possibility that autism spectrum disorders are a continuation of anxiety disorders. Discussion: Given recent findings that ASD is not an innate and lifelong conditions for all (Whiteley et al., 2019), one muses over why such individuals no longer meet diagnostic criteria for ASD later. Furthermore, though there is increased likelihood of those with ASD also developing anxiety disorders, the reasons for the anxiety are no different than those same-age neurotypical individuals that develop anxiety (Kerns et al., 2016). This seems related to the influences that increase the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder, no matter the existence of a pre-existing ASD diagnosis. These influences include: profile or skills deficits, context of the individual’s coping and regulation skills, social and family environment, developmental level, and family history (Kerns et al., 2016). Furthermore, assessing anxiety in young individuals with ASD is exceedingly difficult, especially due to the overlap in symptoms commonly noted in the two disorders (Kerns et al., 2016; Kerns et al., 2017). Anxiety disorders are increasingly more common in children and adolescents, with an estimated 4% to 17% prevalence (Quy et al., 2018). The prevalence rate of autism continues to increase; as such, an estimated 40% of those diagnosed with ASD also receive a co-morbid anxiety disorder diagnosis (Kerns et al., 2016). At the current time, ASD and anxiety are viewed as two separate conditions. However, the overlap of symptoms between the two is extensive, including difficulty with emotional regulation, hyperarousal, anticipatory worries about change, negative reactions to change, fears around restricted interests, and phobic or aversive responses to unusual or overwhelming stimuli (Kerns et al., 2016; Kerns et al., 2017). Conclusion: This presenter previously presented how behavioral analytic interventions are useful for individuals with and without an ASD diagnosis.Given the extensive overlap of anxiety and ASD symptoms, would it behoove us as practitioners, implementers, and researchers to view ASD in a new light? This presentation will explore this more in depth, examining the literature in this area, concerns regarding diagnosis accuracy, and this presenter’s previous findings.




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