Anxiety and Aggression in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Attending Mainstream Schools

Pamela’s journal article about the relationships between autism, anxiety, and aggression was published in the peer-reviewed journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.  To view the article at its source, please click the link above.  To read a copy of the article, click here.

The research study was prompted by the observation that students with high-functioning autism were frequently reported to engage in apparently unprovoked aggression toward other students and sometimes teachers. These incidents would often result in suspension from school. It has long been known that high levels of anxiety are common in people with autism, but there was little evidence that the anxiety and aggression were related. The study sought to show that there is a link between anxiety and aggression in students with autism and that suspension therefore may not be an appropriate response to what is more a mental health issue than a behavioural issue.

Students who participated in the study completed questionnaires measuring their anxiety and anger. Anger is an emotion that may be expressed as aggression or violence. There are two kinds of anger: reactive anger, which is the immediate response to feelings of fear, frustration or being threatened; and instrumental anger, which is more likely to be goal-directed and malicious. Their teachers completed questionnaires reporting physically and verbally aggressive behaviour. The students with autism reported higher levels of anxiety and higher levels of reactive anger than their peers, while their teachers reported more incidents of aggression. The students with autism were also more often suspended. One of the most interesting and useful outcomes of the study, however, was the information that students with better developed anger control strategies, regardless of their level of anxiety, were no more aggressive than their non-anxious peers.

These results suggest that providing students with autism with appropriate treatment for anxiety and helping them to develop effective anger control skills may help prevent incidents of physical aggression and improve the educational outcomes and quality of life for these students.