Clinically Significant Anxiety in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Varied Intellectual Functioning

Connor M. Kerns, Breanna Winder-Patel, Ana Maria Iosif, Christine Wu Nordahl, Brianna Heath, Marjorie Solomon, David G. Amaral

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Objective: To evaluate how distinct presentations of anxiety symptoms and intellectual impairment influence the measurement and estimated rate of clinically significant anxiety in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Method: The sample included 75 children (ages 9–13 years) with ASD and varied IQ and 52 typically developing (TD) controls and parents. Parents completed anxiety symptom scales and a diagnostic interview, designed to (1) differentiate anxiety and ASD and (2) examine DSM-specified and unspecified (“distinct”) anxiety presentations in each child, including fears of change, special interests, idiosyncratic stimuli and social confusion rather than evaluation. Children completed standard intellectual and ASD diagnostic assessments. Results: 69% of those with ASD had clinically-significant anxiety, including 21% DSM-specified anxiety disorders, 17% distinct anxiety, and 31% both. Only 8% of TD children had clinically-significant anxiety, all DSM-specified. DSM-specified anxiety disorders in children with ASD and intellectual impairment (IQ<70) were predominantly specific phobias. DSM-specified anxiety other than specific phobia was significantly less common in children with, versus without, intellectual impairment; this was not the case for distinct anxiety. The sensitivities of anxiety scales were moderate to poor, particularly in cases with intellectual impairment. Conclusions: ASD is associated with more frequent and varied presentations of clinical anxiety, which may align with and differ from the specified anxiety disorders of the DSM. Standard parent report anxiety scales have reduced sensitivity to detect clinical anxiety in ASD, particularly in children with intellectual impairment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
StateAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology


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