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IAN Families Contribute to Tool for Assessing Mental Health in Autism

Date Published: 
January 26, 2018

By Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network

Families in the Interactive Autism Network have contributed to efforts to help doctors determine if youth with autism are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Many of the tools used to assess psychiatric problems were not developed with autism in mind. However, youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face higher rates of anxiety, depression, and certain behavioral problems than the general population. Aggression, self-injury. and suicide are particular concerns.1

Four researchers from Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University sought to address that need. They tested a tool, called the Mental Health Crisis Assessment Scale (MCAS), with parents of more than 600 people with autism, ages 3 to 25. The families participate in the Interactive Autism Network, an online research project at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

The MCAS asks parents to rate the severity of different emotional symptoms and behaviors, as well as their ability to manage their son's or daughter's most dangerous behavior.

In this study, parents completed the MCAS survey. Health care providers also interviewed some of those parents by telephone, to determine separately if their child was experiencing a mental health crisis. The researchers then analyzed the results of the MCAS and the phone interviews by the clinicians. They found the MCAS to be a "promising tool" to measure mental health crises in children, teenagers, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).1

"This tool is important because it is helps characterize child and families in great need," explained the study's lead author, Luther G. Kalb PhD, assistant professor in the neuropsychology department and the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, and an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The MCAS "is also very unique. For instance, it places particular importance on behaviors that are urgent and quite prevalent in ASD, such as elopement," he said. "The measure also worked well for youth and young adults – most measures do not translate well between these age groups. Many of the measures we have also do not translate well into clinical practice. The MCAS is designed to be clear, easy to use, and simple to interpret. Right now, it's only supported for research, but we hoping it will lead to meaningful improvements in clinical practice."

They recommended further study to establish that screening youth with the MCAS will lead to more referrals for mental health treatment for those with autism. The study, by Dr. Kalb and fellow researchers Louis Hagopian, Alden Gross and Roma Vasa, was published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry this month.

Photo credit: Ilya Yakover/Unsplash