Fighting anxiety in autistic children

Professor Dr. Philip Kendall designed an anxiety treatment for autistic children.

Roger Mercado, the oldest of five siblings, has always been fascinated by how people change over time.

“I kind of grew up watching my siblings develop and seeing how they grow and how they learn to think and interact with the world,” Mercado said.

Mercado’s curiosity in human growth led him to pursue a career in psychology. He is now working alongside psychology professor Dr. Philip Kendall on a cutting-edge study that aims to determine what treatments help ease anxiety for children on the autism spectrum.

“Research into the field of autism is relatively new,” Mercado said of the work he’s participating in as a graduate student.

According to a report compiled by researchers at the University of Amsterdam, almost 40 percent of children with autism have at least one anxiety disorder. Kendall and Mercado said little research has been done to figure out the most effective anxiety treatment for children with autism.

“The non-benign neglect of anxiety and autism has been [due to the fact] that it’s a small part of a bigger and more severe problem,” Kendall said.

Kendall believes specialized treatment may help alleviate some of the anxiety symptoms faced by children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Anxiety in children with ASD is different than anxiety in other children.

“[Children with ASD] have a similar process – an inordinate fear of a situation that causes distress – but it’s not the typical ones,” Kendall said.

Kendall explained that common phobias for ASD children include needles, blood, weather, sounds and jingles.

“Anxiety is one of the difficulties kids have that’s treatable,” Kendall said. “Kids with autism have some problems that are much harder to treat. The anxiety that kids with autism have, especially social, seems to be potentially treatable.”

The researchers will split a pool of children with autism into three groups. The first group will receive a cognitive behavioral treatment called Coping Cat.

The Coping Cat program, designed by Kendall, combines learning with experience.

“In the first half, you learn skills, and in the second half, you practice those skills,” Kendall said. “We go out in the real world and apply what we’ve learned.”

A second group will be given a treatment called Behavioral Interventions for Anxiety in Children with Autism, or BIACA, which was developed at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mercado, who is one of many therapists involved in the study, described BIACA as “geared more toward kids who are on the [autism] spectrum” and “a little more intensive.”

The goal is to compare the results of the two treatments and evaluate which is more effective for children with ASD.

A third group will receive no additional treatment and will be measured as a control group to determine the progress made by the first two groups. The study plans to include around 200 children with autism spectrum disorders.

An independent evaluator will assess each child in the study before the treatment begins, halfway through the treatment, and after the treatment, Mercado said.

Kendall has written more than 30 books and, according to the American Psychological Association, is one of the most cited psychologists in the nation. Graduate students fly in from all over the country to apply to study with Kendall.

“He’s a wonderful mentor,” said Mercado, who has worked with Kendall for two-and-a-half years. “He’s been in the field for quite some time. He’s an expert in child psychology.”

Mercado is looking forward to the study, which will be conducted over a three-year time period.

“It’s a pretty exciting study,” he said. “It’s groundbreaking. It’s a great opportunity, I think, both for myself and [Kendall], but also for the community.”

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at

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