Autism and Anxiety

The typical characteristics of autism spectrum disorder are social and communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors. Anxiety is not considered a core feature of autism, but research shows that generalized anxiety disorder is the most common comorbid condition in adults with autism

When it comes to children with anxiety and autism, a recent study found that 39.6% of children with ASD are diagnosed with at least one anxiety disorder.

It is essential to recognize and treat anxiety in children with autism because it can significantly affect the core aspects of autism and development, including social withdrawal. 

This debilitating anxiety can take the form of one or more disorders, including panic disorder and phobias.

Let’s talk about the link between autism and anxiety and what parents of children with autism should know.

Signs Of Anxiety In A Child With Autism

Children with autism express anxiety or nervousness in many of the same ways as typically developing children do. Of course, children with ASD often have trouble communicating verbally. So, outward signs of anxiety may be the only clue for parents that something is bothering their child with autism. Some researchers also suspect that outward, physical symptoms of anxiety may be especially prominent among those with ASD.

Some signs of anxiety in children with autism include:

  • Separation anxiety. When children have to leave their parents or caregivers for daily activities, they can experience separation anxiety. These issues typically affect kids with and without autism. But, social anxiety – or a fear of new people and social situations – is prevalent among kids with autism.
  • Children with autism suffering from anxiety often experience intense internal sensations of tension, including a racing heart, muscular strains, sweating, and an aching stomach.
  •  Intense anxiety can result in repetitive behaviors that appear to serve no function, such as shredding paper or clothing.

Types Of Anxiety And What Parents Should Look For

Anxiety presents itself in many forms. While a person with autism can experience any form of anxiety, researchers found specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and social anxiety are the most likely to occur in people with ASD.

  • Specific phobia: A specific phobia, specifically an intense, irrational fear of something with little or no actual danger, may arise early in the course of ASD because of over responsiveness to sensory stimulation. These phobias usually involve highly unusual stimuli like balloons popping, toilet flushing, fire alarms, and so on. But, many also present fears, like a fear of the dark, that are typical of developing children.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Characterized by unwanted and intrusive thoughts and consequent compulsive behaviors, OCD is often comorbid with ASD.
  • Social anxiety: As anxious children with autism age and their environment becomes more demanding, social communication impairment may indicate the development of social anxiety, especially if the child is high functioning and aware of his/her social incompetence. Social anxiety, which is defined as intense anxiety or fear of being negatively evaluated in a social or performance situation, leads to avoidance of social situations, limiting the child’s opportunities to practice social skills and may predispose them to adverse reactions from peers, even bullying. 
  • Separation anxiety: Separation anxiety may then arise when the child is preparing to separate from attachment figures.

Reducing Anxiety In Children With Autism

The good news is, there are several things you can do to reduce anxiety in children with autism.

Pinpoint What’s Triggering The Anxiety

Only when you identify what is causing your child’s anxiety can you identify ways to help them. When the anxiety trigger is known, you can help your child cope with and maybe even overcome their fears. Parents and teachers may encourage the child to engage in anxiety-provoking situations safely and praise or reward the child when they are brave enough to do so.

Use Visual Aids

Students with anxiety and autism often have difficulty transitioning between activities at school and during daily life. 

The struggle to shift between activities can often be intensified if children transition between an activity they love and one they don’t like. To help with this, many children can benefit from a visual schedule, including a picture of the activity and a time that the activity will take place. These schedules can help children know what to expect and, in turn, reduce anxiety levels. It may also help to show the child a picture or video of transitioning smoothly to the next activity before doing so. The video or photo can provide a positive example of a smooth transition and help the child know what is coming up next.

Safe Spaces

When children with autism become over-stimulated, they are likely to act out. Some children may bang their heads or engage in other disruptive or self-injurious behaviors. Others may bite or scratch themselves or engage in aggressive behavior towards others. Sensory breaks allow children to get the chance to regroup and refocus. 

When your child with autism is upset, acts out, and a time-out is needed, it doesn’t need to be a form of punishment for your child. Instead, view it as a way to refocus their energy and take their attention off of the external stimuli. 

Instead of putting them in a corner, you should redirect them to a dedicated space all for themselves where they can enjoy a moment of peace, quiet, and solitude away from siblings, friends, and other stimulating activities.

When you refocus your child’s energy and divert their attention with a moment of quiet, it can help avoid a meltdown. Also, when you continuously redirect your child to a dedicated safe and quiet space for them to escape to when things get too wild or stimulating, they will learn a better way to cope with the stress, knowing they can always escape to their safe space.

Relaxation Techniques

A lot of recent research shows that as schools introduce relaxation techniques like mediation, many students have decreased anxiety levels. Mediation doesn’t have to be fancy. Have your child with autism simply sit in a dimly lit room, play some soft music, have them lie down and relax.

Who We Are

Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning offers state-of-the-art intervention for children and adolescents with autism. By accumulating years of experience, we truly understand that each individual child is unique, particularly in terms of their symptoms and everyday challenges. In addition to our program offerings, we also offer in-home therapy and activities to help children with autism develop social, academic, communication, self-help, and functional living skills.

To learn more, contact us today!