One of the most common co-occurring symptoms for children with autism is anxiety. Chronic anxiety not only can lower quality of life for children and their families, but it can lead to depression as well. While anxiety can be treated with medication with some positive effect, researchers at the Thompson Center are exploring other ways to help reduce anxiety while remaining healthy.
One promising potential way to reduce anxiety is regular physical activity. A recently completed pilot study from the University of California-Irvine showed a reduction in anxiety symptoms in children with autism when they participated in physical activity on a regular basis.
Now, Dr. Lea Ann Lowery, an occupational therapist at the Thompson Center and an associate clinical professor of occupational therapy in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions, is expanding on that study in order to learn more about how well physical activity reduces anxiety in children with autism.
“We know that anxiety can really cause a lot of stress for children with autism as well as their families,” Lowery said. “Physical activity not only is important for all children in order to be healthy, but we also think it could have some really positive effects on anxiety as well. This study should help paint a clearer picture about exactly how much effect it can have.”
For her study, Physical Exercise to Reduce Anxiety in Autism (PETRA), Lowery hopes to recruit 75 children with autism and anxiety between the ages of 6 and 12. Before participating in the study, the children and their families will complete surveys about anxiety and how it effects them. The researchers also will take saliva samples. This will allow them to measure salivary cortisol levels in each child throughout the study. Salivary cortisol is a biological marker of stress and anxiety.
During the study, participants will come to the Thompson Center three times a week for eight weeks to take part in either physical activities, including cardio, strength, jumping, running and obstacle courses, or to play sedentary games such as Minecraft and Legos. Throughout and following the eight-week period, the researchers will continue to measure participants’ Body Mass Index (BMI), heartrate levels, flexibility and strength, as well as their levels of anxiety through saliva and surveys to compare the physically active group with the sedentary group
“We really hope to see a reduction in overall anxiety among all our children, as well as some potential physical improvements with their overall health,” Lowery said. “Wouldn’t it be great if doing something healthy and fun could help reduce anxiety as well? We think that will be the case, but we want to be able to prove it scientifically as well.”
The first cohort of participants for the PETRA study began this summer. The study will take three years and is funded by a grant from the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). Lowery and the Thompson Center researchers are partnering with researchers at UC-Irvine to conduct the study. Across both sites, researchers hope to recruit 200 children to participate.