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Understanding the Fears of Children with Autism

For many people with autism, both young and old, anxiety is a constant presence that often impedes social functioning. This anxiety manifests itself in the form of specific phobias, particularly in children. Research suggests that children with autism experience these “odd and intense” fears anywhere between three and twelve times more than their typically developing peers. And while popular culture defines a relatively standard set of childhood phobias (e.g. darkness, monsters, being punished, large animals), young people on the spectrum often express deep fears of objects and phenomena that most would either find pleasurable or react to nonchalantly.

In “Unusual fears in children with autism,” previously OAR-funded researcher Mayes, et al. (2013) clinically interviewed the parents of 1,033 children with autism (ages 1-16; 65% higher functioning and 35% lower functioning, based on IQ score) and asked them to identify their child’s “unusual fears,” if applicable. The researchers sought to determine and categorize these fears, and identify any variables associated with their presence or absence.

More than half of the children in the sample experienced phobias. Nearly 41 percent of all parents reported that their child had at least one specific unusual fear; of this group, two-fifths experienced multiple fears. Among the most common, accounting for 38.8 percent of all reported fears, were toilets, elevators, vacuum cleaners, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. Categorically, 23.8 percent of children experienced phobias related to mechanical things (e.g. blenders, hair dryers, windshield wipers), while 18.3 percent dealt with heights and 16.2 percent were related to weather.

Interestingly enough, gender was the only measured variable associated with an increased likelihood for unusual fears – they appeared in 49 percent of girls sampled, as opposed to only 39 percent of boys. Other factors, such as age, IQ, parent occupation, race, and autism severity, had no statistically significant impact.

The findings about the impact of these variables on the presence of phobias contradict existing research with the typically developing population. Children with autism, unlike their peers, do not tend to outgrow fears with age and their socioeconomic status was not a determining factor. The researchers posit that there may be a neurobiological basis for these fears that overrides developmental and environmental influences.

More practically, it is important for parents and specialists working with children on the autism spectrum to not only identify phobias, but understand how they impact functioning. In addition, the lengths to which children may go to in order to avoid these illogically undesirable objects or phenomena may put them at risk for other safety concerns. As the researchers indicated, the evidence-based treatments that help typically developing children overcome phobias have applicability for children with autism as well.

Mayes, S.D., et al. (2013). Unusual fears in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7(1), 151-158.