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Easing Anxiety in Kids with Autism and Limited Verbal Skills

By John Danial, a 2012 Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. John’s Weatherstone research training grant will support his development and evaluation of behavioral interventions that help reduce anxiety in individuals with autism and low verbal skills.

Many of my colleagues have shared stories of how knowing someone with a developmental disability inspired them to enter this field of research. My entrance into the world of autism research was arguably less noble. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I received job posting from the Koegel Autism Center. They needed a “clinical interventionist” to be trained in and provide Pivotal Response Treatment to children. I didn’t know much about autism at the time. But I really needed work. I applied. I got the job. I had no idea how the coming months would transform my life.

On my first day, I shadowed a therapist visiting the home of a boy let’s call Tommy. (I’m changing his name to protect his privacy.) I watched the therapist play games with Tommy while skillfully providing opportunities for Tommy to respond and comment on what they were doing. Tommy seemed to enjoy himself and even flashed an occasional smile. So far as I could tell, he didn’t even notice I was there. At the end of the session, the therapist asked me to play outside with Tommy, while he spoke with Tommy’s mom about his progress.

Silently, Tommy and I climbed onto a small trampoline in his backyard. As we began jumping, a huge grin spread across his face. Tommy went from ignoring my existence to looking me directly in the face. So I did the only thing I could think of. I started making silly faces.

Tommy’s grin grew wider, and he began copying my expressions. Then he decided it was my turn to copy his silly faces. Pretty soon we were both cracking up. As I write this, I realize how unimpressive jumping on a trampoline and making faces may sound. But it was a big deal. Tommy was not only “seeing” me, we were truly connecting in a wonderful way. Jumping with Tommy on his backyard trampoline allowed me to glimpse his untapped potential. I was hooked.

I began assisting the center’s therapists with Tommy and a number of other children of various ages and levels of functioning. I quickly found that responding to each child’s unique capabilities and motivations was the way to form a connection. I learned the importance of being able to adapt treatment to meet the individual needs of each child. What started off as “just a job” evolved into a passion for autism research.

My Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship provides me with a unique opportunity to begin my life’s work. It’s allowing me to develop and test a new intervention to treat anxiety in children with autism who also have limited verbal abilities. With the guidance of my advisor, Jeffrey Wood, PhD, I plan to adapt the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

As many of the readers of this blog know, anxiety can be a crippling symptom associated with autism. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven its worth among those with autism. However, it is a verbally demanding treatment. Working with Dr. Wood, I will find ways to reduce the treatment’s verbal demands. In addition to simplifying CBT’s proven techniques, we will use each child’s interests and favorite activities to promote engagement and increase success.

I am extremely thankful and excited to participate in the development of  treatment options for children with autism. I would like to thank the Stavros Niarchos foundation, the Sloan Foundation and Autism Speaks for this wonderful opportunity.

Editor’s note: For more on easing anxiety in those with autism, also see Dr. Wood’s recent “Got Questions?” blog. You can explore more Weatherstone Fellowship research projects with these news storiesblogs, feature profilesand research project descriptions.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.