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Autistic Children Take Longer to Let Go of Fear

Update Date: Nov 30, 2012 11:06 AM EST

Most of us know when to be scared and when to calm down. However, a new research shows that children who are diagnosed with autism find it difficult to let go of old, outdated fears.

The study by researchers from Brigham Young University has found that this rigid fearfulness is linked to the severity of classic symptoms of autism, such as repeated movements and resistance to change.

For parents and caregivers, the findings of the study highlights the need to help autistic children deal with fear and help them make emotional transitions.

"People with autism likely don't experience or understand their world in the same way we do," said Mikle South, a psychology professor at BYU and lead author of the study.

"Since they can't change the rules in their brain, and often don't know what to expect from their environment, we need to help them plan ahead for what to expect."

For the study, the researchers recruited 30 autistic children and 29 without the disorder to participate in an experiment.

In the experiment, the children were shown a visual cue like a yellow card, and immediately, they would a harmless but surprising puff of air under their chins. Half way through the experiment, the researchers switched the color of the card so that a different color preceded the puff of air. The skin response of the participants was noted by the researchers in order to see if their nervous system noticed the switch and knew what was coming.

"Typical kids learn quickly to anticipate based on the new color instead of the old one," South said. "It takes a lot longer for children with autism to learn to make the change."

"We see a strong connection between anxiety and the repetitive behaviors. We're linking symptoms used to diagnose autism with emotion difficulties not usually considered as a classic symptom of autism," South added.

Persistence of fear affects the people's physical health negatively. Sustenance of elevated hormone levels in the brain that help us fight in an actual scenario of threat cause damage to the body.

"In talking to parents, we hear that living with classic symptoms of autism is one thing, but dealing with their children's worries all the time is the greater challenge," South said. "It may not be an entirely separate direction to study their anxiety because it now appears to be related."

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