Dr. Connor Kerns is shedding important light on the anxiety that hides behind autism

People with autism not only have challenges with communication, social skills, and repetitive behaviours—they can also can develop significant anxiety. It was this discovery that led Dr. Connor Kerns to pursue her line of research and ultimately become an expert in the evidence-based assessment and treatment of anxiety in children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Dr. Kerns joins UBC psychology as assistant professor and clinical psychologist. A scientist who studies child and adolescent psychopathology, Kerns primarily focuses on anxiety, trauma and autism spectrum disorders.

“Giving individuals with ASD and their families better tools to recognize and effectively cope with anxiety and stress is a way to mitigate an additional, unnecessary suffering and hardship,” says Dr. Connor Kerns.

In a Q and A, Dr. Kerns shares her research, what inspired her to uncover the anxiety that people with ASD have, and new research she’s excited about.

First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m clinical psychologist and scientist with expertise in child and adolescent psychopathology and a particular focus on anxiety, trauma, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I grew up in New York City, NY. I have a BA in English and Psychology from Cornell University and an MA and PhD in Psychology from Temple University. In addition, I completed specialized clinical training in ASD, anxiety disorders, OCD and pediatric psychology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, AI Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE, the Department of Psychiatry at University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in Philadelphia PA. I worked for five years as an assistant research professor at the AJ Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, PA, a unique, public-health oriented autism research centre where launched a federally funded research program focused on anxiety and stress-related disorders in youth with autism in addition to contributing as a Co-I to several large-scale studies of early autism detection and treatment.

What kinds of questions do you try to answer through your research?
My research is primarily focused on the overlap, assessment and treatment of anxiety, trauma and autism spectrum disorders. This work explores sources and manifestations of stress in individuals with ASD to inform the development and testing of new clinical assessment tools and psychotherapies. More broadly, my work explores psychiatric comorbidity in ASD and how improved recognition, prevention and treatment of such comorbidity—through community settings—may improve functional outcomes and reduce suffering for individuals with ASD.

Can you give us an example of this in our daily lives?
In addition to difficulties communicating with others and understanding social nuances, individuals with ASD can develop significant secondary anxiety and mood disorders that exacerbate these issues and prevent them from accessing critical resources, such as appropriate education, social skill interventions and health care. Understanding the underpinnings and varied ways in which individuals with ASD express stress and anxiety is essential to better identify, prevent and treat the development of comorbid psychiatric disorders that worsen long-term outcomes. Living with ASD can be inherently challenging in our present society. Giving individuals with ASD and their families better tools to recognize and effectively cope with anxiety and stress is a way to mitigate an additional, unnecessary suffering and hardship.

How did you become interested in this line of research?
Prior to graduate school, I worked as research coordinator of a genetic study of ASD at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NYC. As part of this study, I drove all around the greater NYC region visiting families with a minimum of two or more members with an autism diagnosis. The experience afforded me incredible training in assessment, diagnosis and the highly varied expression of ASD across the life course. As part of this work, I also noticed that many of individuals with ASD I worked with seemed to be experiencing anxiety, though the focus of that anxiety was distinct (i.e. fears of change, fears of unusual objects like buttons, mechanical objects or music) and often not identified as anxiety, but rather as a symptom of ASD. This observation led me to seek out focused training in the evidence-based assessment and cognitive behavioral treatment of childhood anxiety disorders, which I then applied to children with ASD. Moreover, in studying anxiety disorders in people with ASD, I became curious about the lack of research on PTSD and trauma-related syndromes in ASD, given the potentially enhanced risk for traumatization and the high rate of mental health conditions (a common sequelae of trauma) in this population.

Can you tell us about any new research that you are particularly excited about?
We have a variety of exciting new research projects going on in our lab all at difference stages of completion. This work includes a just completed clinical trial comparing the efficacy of standard versus modular cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders in children with ASD. This study will be the first to examine how both traditional anxiety disorders and more distinctive fears and phobias, such as unusual phobias, fear of social interaction and fears of change, respond to different formats of CBT –a standard delivery and an expanded CBT program specifically designed for ASD. We also recently received funding from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in the United States to examine the emergence of traditional and distinctive anxiety disorders in preschoolers with ASD. This collaboration with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger aims to characterize the rate and presentation of anxiety disorders in a younger age group than has previously been studied in order to better understand the emergence of these disorders in ASD and develop novel prevention efforts. In addition to this work in anxiety disorders, we also have several projects focused on better characterizing, measuring and understanding the impact of childhood adversity and traumatic stress on individuals with ASD. Prior NIH funded has supported the development and initial testing of a new measure of adversity and traumatic stress in ASD, designed to capture the diverse array of experiences that may be traumatic for individuals with ASD and also better differentiate ASD and traumatic stress symptoms. In the coming year, we hope to analyze initial data on this measure and seek additional funding to revise and validate the tool for future clinical research, including studies that can more definitely speak to rates and sources of trauma for individuals with ASD and the contribution of trauma to psychiatric comorbidity and other functional outcomes in this population.

Do you have a motto?
When I get overwhelmed with all there is to do and everything I want to study, I like to remember “one step at a time!”

What do you like to do in your free time?
I enjoy horseback riding, hiking through the woods with my family and our dog, Seamus, reading poetry, good coffee and exploring cities by foot or bike whenever possible.

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Kerns!