Anxiety disorders are prevalent and significantly impact young children and their families. One hypothesized risk factor for anxiety is heightened responses to sensory input. Few studies have explored this hypothesis prospectively. This study had two goals: (1) examine whether sensory over-responsivity is predictive of the development of anxiety in a large prospective sample of children, and (2) identify whether anxiety mediates the relationship between sensory over-responsivity and behavioral challenges. Children’s sensory and anxiety symptoms were assessed in a community sample of 917 at 2–5 and again in 191 of these children at 6 years old. Parents also reported on a number of additional behavioral challenges previously found to be associated with both sensory over-responsivity and anxiety separately: irritability, food selectivity, sleep problems, and gastrointestinal problems. Forty three percent of preschool children with sensory over-responsivity also had a concurrent impairing anxiety disorder. Preschool sensory over-responsivity symptoms significantly and positively predicted anxiety symptoms at age six. This relationship was both specific and unidirectional. Finally, school-age anxiety symptoms mediated the relationship between preschool sensory over-responsivity symptoms and both irritability and sleep problems at school-age. These results suggest sensory over-responsivity is a risk factor for anxiety disorders. Furthermore, children who have symptoms of sensory over-responsivity as preschoolers have higher levels of anxiety symptoms at school-age, which in turn is associated with increased levels of school-age behavioral challenges.
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This work was supported by awards from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01-MH-081025 and R01-MH-075766, PI: Egger), a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (#23807, PI: Carpenter), and by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs through the Autism Research Program (Award# W81XWH-14-1-0526, PIs: Dawson/Carpenter/Baranek). The sponsors had no role in the study design, in the collection, analysis, or interpretation of data, in the writing of the report, or in the decision to submit the article for publication.
Conflict of Interest
Dr Dawson reports grants and personal fees from Janssen Research, Akili, from LabCorp, Inc, Roche Pharmaceutical Co, ViaCord, Guilford Press, Oxford University Press, and Springer Naturek; grants from NICHD 1P50HD093074 and Progenity, Inc. in addition, Dr Dawson has a patent number 62757234 pending, a patent number 62757226 pending, a patent number 15141391 pending, and a patent number 62470431 pending. Dr. Egger is on the Scientific Advisory Board of Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance. Dr. Compton recieves research support from the NC GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, Murison, Inc, and has served as a consultant for Shire. He has recieved honoraria from the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Nordic Long-Term OCD treatment Study Research Group, and the Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Eastern and Southern Norway. He has also given expert testimony for Duke University No other authors have any ptoential conflicts of interest to declare.
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Carpenter, K.L.H., Baranek, G.T., Copeland, W.E. et al. Sensory Over-Responsivity: An Early Risk Factor for Anxiety and Behavioral Challenges in Young Children. J Abnorm Child Psychol 47, 1075–1088 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-018-0502-y
- Pediatric anxiety
- Sensory over-responsivity
- Risk factors