An exploration of how the secondary school experience contributes to elevated anxiety levels for adolescents on the autism spectrum

Assignment type: Thesis
Author: Eleanor Hayes
Submitted: June 2018


Children and young people on the autism spectrum show elevated anxiety levels in comparison to typically developing peers and those with other special educational needs. However, despite the significant time spent in school, few researchers have focused on how the school environment contributes to elevated anxiety levels in autism. A systematic review of the literature was conducted, exploring causes of anxious affect for autistic adolescents attending mainstream school. Experiences in the school environment that were highlighted as sources of anxiety included adverse noises, the behaviour of others and the social identity of autistic pupils. Additionally, academic pressure, transitions, disliked subjects, homework and handwriting were highlighted as sources of anxiety. Key frameworks of anxiety and autism (Boulter et al., 2014; Wood & Gadow, 2010) were used to understand these findings.An empirical study was also conducted to explore how the secondary school experience contributed to elevated anxiety following the Intolerance of Uncertainty framework of anxiety and autism proposed by Boulter et al. (2014). A school-based sample of 30 autistic adolescents aged 11-14, took part in the study. Parents completed measures of anxiety, sensory processing, autism symptom severity, and teachers completed a measure of social skills. Participants on the autism spectrum completed a measure of the number and types of experiences causing feelings of anxiety in the school social and learning environment. Indirect pathways from sensory sensitivities and social and environmental experiences in school to anxiety symptoms through intolerance of uncertainty were then tested. Findings supported and extended the key framework of anxiety in autism proposed by Boulter et al. (2014), demonstrating significant indirect pathways from experiences in school, sensory sensitivities and autism traits to anxiety through intolerance of uncertainty.

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