On a warm spring day, Rayford Bromley, 13, sprawled on a bench in the Yale Child Study Center, chatting about school, his friends, and a bonfire he had been invited to attend. This was a big change from just a few months ago. Anxious and withdrawn, Rafe had been struggling, wanting to make friends but not knowing how to go about it.
Rafe is participating in a clinical trial for kids who have autism and anxiety. His mom had noticed a gradual change in his behavior and knew something was wrong, but was at a loss as to how to help him. She called the Child Study Center to set up an evaluation. “I was very excited to find out there were studies and that by participating he could also be diagnosed,” she says.
Clinicians in the Child Study Center conducted in-depth interviews with Rafe and his mom, along with structured interactions using verbal and non-verbal communication. They diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder, as well as the anxiety his family had noticed. Rafe was eligible to participate in a clinical trial using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat anxiety in children with autism.
CBT is a form of “talk therapy” that’s commonly used to treat anxiety and other mental health conditions. Like many mental health treatments, it doesn’t work for every patient. Also, it hasn’t been well-studied in kids with autism. As part of the research study, Rafe had an fMRI scan—an imaging test during which he performed specific tasks while in the MRI machine. This was done to see if reduction of anxiety after therapy is associated with changes in the brain.
“We hope science can shed light on the underlying mechanism of childhood psychiatric disorders and offer a glimpse as to why symptoms improve with treatment in certain people,” says Denis Sukhodolsky, PhD, associate professor at the Child Study Center, who is leading the study. He hopes that the information from the study can one day be used to predict which kids with autism and anxiety will benefit from CBT. “Research is the only way we can improve treatments so that those who don’t respond can get help and those who respond partially can get cured one day,” says Dr. Sukhodolsky.
Today, Rafe has a social life and feels comfortable interacting with friends. “The study has been one of the biggest breakthroughs he’s had recently,” says his mom, who is a proponent of supporting science and research. “How will we learn about the world if we don’t learn about science?” she says. For Rafe and his family, the combination of diagnosis, treatment, and adding to the body of scientific knowledge has been a win-win.