Eye-Opening Study May Improve Diagnosis of Autism and Anxiety


The diagnoses of autism and anxiety by psychological clinicians may have a critical problem.

BYU students AnnaLisa Ward, Kevin Stephenson and Max Maisel have spotted a potential weakness in the measurement of autistic symptoms. Analyzing a common autism diagnostic test, the Social Responsive Scale (SRS), they found that it may misidentify symptoms of anxiety as indicators of autism. Their  findings were presented at a recent research conference at BYU.

The SRS is a survey given to psychiatric patients to differentiate symptoms of autism from symptoms of other disorders. Since people who live with autism often live with anxiety as well, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the two. But a diagnosis of anxiety does not necessarily mean a diagnosis of autism. Yet this study found that among people with high symptoms of anxiety, fifty percent of them actually score high enough on the SRS to be diagnosed with autism. Some even scored high enough to be categorized as “severely” autistic – even though they did not have autism. Their anxious symptoms could have been mistakenly accepted as indicators of autism.


“So we see that there is likely a problem with the measure that we are using,” says Kevin Stephenson, a doctoral student in clinical psychology. “When using this test, clinicians may need to take a step back and ask, ‘Is this really autism or is this just anxiety?’ And the data we have provided will most likely lead to improvements on the diagnostic measurements.” The study is being prepared for publication.

What Can WE Do to understand Mental Disorders?

Studies like this can inform a “measure twice, cut once” mentality regarding the diagnosis of autism. The better the diagnostic tool for a mental issue, the higher the likelihood of a correct diagnosis, and the more effective the treatment for the afflicted person. Conversely, if the tool is not as finely tuned as it could be, then diagnoses might be difficult or faulty.

Similarly, each of us need to develop a “measure twice, cut once” attitude in our associations with the mentally disabled. When we learn that someone has autism, anxiety, or depression, do we take the time to know what they experience before we jump to conclusions about how to help or associate with them?

People with autism often do not feel understood by those around them. Yet one in 100 people have autism. So you likely have people in your life who experience it. Do you know them? Are you aware of what they may go through? Perhaps we need a little exposure to what autism is:

Being informed on these kind of mental issues, and how to best associate with people who have them, is essential to removing stigmas and improving the lives of effected individuals and their families. There are resources available in your community and all across the web. For more information on autism, visit AutismSpeaks.org or BYU’s: Autism Connect.

The details of Ward, Stephenson, and Maisel’s study are portrayed in their winning poster below:

Ward et al poster

Do you know someone with autism or anxiety disorder? How has that effected your understanding?



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