DOD Grant Funds Duke-UNC Collaboration to Investigate the Development of Anxiety Disorders in Children with ASD

A new Duke-UNC Chapel Hill collaboration titled “Precursors to the development of anxiety disorders in young children with autism spectrum disorder” has received a grant from the Department of Defense that will provide $531,390 in total funding over three years.

DOD Grant Funds Duke-UNC Collaboration to Investigate  the Development of Anxiety Disorders in Children with ASD click to enlarge Drs. Grace Baranek, Geraldine Dawson, and Helen Egger.

Drs. Geraldine Dawson (Duke), Helen Egger (Duke), and Grace Baranek (UNC) are PIs for the study, with Dr. Guillermo Sapiro (Duke) serving as Co-Investigator

The project’s immediate goal is to conduct an in-depth study of the relationship between sensory over-responsivity (SOR) and anxiety symptoms in preschool age children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) using parent report, clinical observation, electroencephalography (EEG or brain waves), and eye-tracking technology.  Long term, investigators hope to be able to identify children with ASD who are at risk for developing anxiety disorders so that early intervention can target specific symptoms that put children at risk and stop full-fledged anxiety disorders from developing, which could mean a more positive outcome for many people with ASD.

“Anxiety disorders are extremely common among individuals with ASD, occurring at four times the rate of the general population, and these disorders can negatively affect people’s lives in a variety of ways, from family functioning and friendship development, to school performance and employability,” said Dr. Baranek.  “Despite this prevalence, little is known about the early risk factors for anxiety in ASD, especially in preschool age children when anxiety disorders first manifest.  We’re hoping to change that with this study.”

Previous research suggests that SOR – a set of symptoms characterized by heightened and unusual reactivity to sensory stimuli that occurs more frequently among children with ASD than typically developing children– is associated with anxiety in individuals with ASD.  SOR emerges early in life and is often a disabling condition, as it can be associated with avoidance, aggression, lower levels of social and adaptive behavior, and food selectivity.  Higher rates of both SOR and anxiety are also associated with chronic gastrointestinal (GI) and sleep problems.

In addition to studying the association between SOR and anxiety symptoms, investigators will explore whether impairments in the ability to disengage attention from a stimulus increase the likelihood that children with SOR develop anxiety.   Attention-shifting can help reduce anxiety by allowing an individual to direct his or her attention away from threatening stimuli and instead focus his or her attention on adaptive stimuli.

The study’s specific aims are:

  1. To evaluate the relationship between SOR and anxiety symptoms using a combination of parent report, observational, and neurophysiological measures.
  2. To evaluate whether anxiety symptoms mediate the relationship between SOR and a wide range of negative outcomes that have been associated with SOR, namely, impaired adaptive behavior, challenging behaviors (e.g. irritability, aggression), GI symptoms and parental stress.
  3. To evaluate whether attentional control moderate the relationship between SOR and anxiety symptoms.
  4. To validate exploratory measures that could potentially improve our ability to assess SOR and attention shifting in young children using neurophysiological recordings, eye-tracking, and automated video coding measures.

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