Anxiety in autistic individuals who speak few or no words: A qualitative study of parental experience and anxiety management

Joanne Tarver*, Effie Pearson, Georgina Edwards, Aryana Shirazi, Liana Potter, Priya Malhi, Jane Waite

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Anxiety is a common co-occurring condition in autism and impacts quality of life of autistic individuals and their families; autistic individuals who speak few or no words represent an under-researched group. This qualitative study aimed to understand more about parental recognition and management of anxiety in autistic individuals who speak few or no words. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with parents/carers of 17 autistic individuals (m age = 14.29) recruited from an existing participant database and social media adverts. Using thematic analysis, 15 themes were placed under three a-priori grand themes: parental recognition of anxiety; parental management of anxiety; and anxiety impact on the autistic individual and their family. Due to reduced verbal language use and overlap with other behaviours, parents described difficulties recognising anxiety in their child. However, they also described use of a number of management strategies, including some which overlap with components of evidence-based interventions for emotional and behavioural problems in autistic individuals (e.g. exposure/sensory calming). Despite this, parents reported that anxiety continues to have significant impact on quality of life. The findings of this study can help to inform the development of targeted intervention and assessment measures for anxiety in autistic individuals who speak few or no words. Lay abstract: Anxiety is a common condition in autistic individuals, including those who also have an intellectual disability. Despite this, autistic individuals who have severe to profound intellectual disability, or use few or no words, are often excluded from autism research. There are also very few assessment tools and interventions with known effectiveness for autistic individuals with intellectual disability. In this study, we aimed to learn more about parent/carers experiences of recognising and managing anxiety in autistic individuals who use few or no words. We conducted semi-structured interviews with parents and carers to address three research questions: (1) what techniques and management strategies do parents describe for anxiety-related behaviour in their child; (2) how do communication difficulties impact parental understanding and management of anxiety provoking situations and behaviours; (3) what is the impact of anxiety-related behaviours on the quality of life of autistic individuals and their families? During the interviews, parents described difficulties recognising anxiety in their child, mostly due to reduced verbal language use and anxiety behaviours overlapping with other behaviours (e.g. autism characteristics). However, parents also described use of a number of management strategies, including some which overlap with components of evidence-based interventions for emotional and behavioural problems in autistic individuals (e.g. exposure/sensory calming). Despite this, parents reported that anxiety continues to have significant impact on quality of life. We will use the findings of this study to inform future research to develop assessment tools and interventions for anxiety in autistic individuals who use few or no words.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism
Early online date1 Oct 2020
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).

Keywords

  • anxiety
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • qualitative research

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