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Intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety Disorders in School-aged Children with Autism: A Preliminary Comparison with Treatment-as-Usual

Abstract

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) frequently present with a comorbid anxiety disorder that can cause significant functional impairment, particularly at school. An intensive modular cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) program was delivered to address anxiety, self-regulation, and social engagement in school and in the community. A particular emphasis was placed on increasing generalizability of coping skills and positive social behavior by involving school personnel in the treatment process. Children (7–11 years old) were randomly assigned to an immediate treatment condition (IT) that included 32 sessions of CBT (n = 7) or a 16-week treatment-as-usual (TAU) condition (n = 5). The CBT sessions emphasized behavioral experimentation and emotion regulation training as well as social coaching on increasing positive peer interactions. School observations and consultations were included in the treatment model. Independent evaluators blind to treatment condition conducted structured diagnostic interviews at baseline and post-IT/post-TAU. Post-treatment analyses showed that 71.4 % of the IT group had remitted from their primary anxiety disorder diagnosis as compared with none of the TAU group. In addition, an ANCOVA analysis conducted with baseline anxiety scores included as a covariate revealed a statistically significant difference by treatment group in anxiety severity favoring the IT group at post-treatment. The 32-session CBT program is an intensive approach for children with ASD and moderate-to-severe anxiety disorders that appears to yield a clinically significant impact on anxiety symptoms. The generalizability of coping skills may be enhanced by the inclusion of school-based treatment components due to the consistency of supports this permits across the child’s daily settings.

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Correspondence to Cori Fujii.

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Fujii, C., Renno, P., McLeod, B.D. et al. Intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety Disorders in School-aged Children with Autism: A Preliminary Comparison with Treatment-as-Usual. School Mental Health 5, 25–37 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-012-9090-0

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Keywords

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Comorbidity
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy