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Breaking the link between autism and anxiety

Funding programmePsyIMPACT

Funding period2016 - 2019

InstitutionSussex University

LocationUnited Kingdom

Could an innovative psychological therapy reduce the number of people with autism who develop an anxiety disorder?

The project

At least one in four people who live with autism are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. But many of those affected find that existing psychological and drug-based treatments for their anxiety have limited impact.

Professor Hugo Critchley and his team at the University of Sussex are investigating whether a new therapy – called ADIE – could provide a much-needed step forward, stopping those with autism from developing anxiety disorders in the first place.

It works by helping people to manage the stress they feel in response to unexpected physical changes, like an increase in their heart rate, and provides ways for them to better judge these.

Hugo and his team from the University of SussexHugo and his team from the University of Sussex

The process

Research on ‘interoception’, led by Hugo’s colleague Dr Sarah Garfinkel, has shown that people with autism often misjudge the reasons for physiological changes in their bodies – like a faster heartbeat – and react very strongly to these changes. As a result, they feel higher levels of stress and anxiety.

So ADIE helps people to understand why changes happen and to feel more confident responding to them. It’s a computer-based therapy, with a finger monitor used to measure heartbeats as users move through a series of tests and training exercises. 

Hugo and his team are running a clinical trial to understand how effective ADIE can be in the short and long term. And to understand exactly how the treatment works, and who it’s most effective on, they’re also using a series of scans to identify which areas of the brain respond to ADIE.

The potential

Around 2% of people live with autism. So if this research finds that ADIE can reduce anxiety, the potential is far-reaching.

If the treatment works, Hugo and his team plan to develop an app version that patients and therapists can use in clinical settings everywhere. 

And a successful trial would also build awareness of how psychological therapies can have major benefits for people who live with autism. 

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