Helping Autistic People Manage Anxiety
Many people on the autism spectrum disorder also suffer from significant anxiety. It can greatly affect the lives of people on the spectrum, controlling the way they interact with the world, and limiting the ways in which other people interact with them.
Finding the cause of anxiety in children with autism can be fairly difficult. Anxiety is defined as an emotional state, characterized by fear, apprehension, and worry. Some anxiety is normal, but anxiety disorder can disrupt a person’s daily life. People with anxiety disorders have unreasonable fears or perceptions that are far from reality. Whether or not the source of the anxiety is realistic, the anxiety is very real and can result in symptoms such as panic attacks, emotional meltdowns, and self-injury.
Anxiety and Autism
These symptoms of anxiety may post additional challenges for those with autism. It is important to recognize the difference between a person on the spectrum with social anxiety, and a person on the spectrum who simply enjoys solitude, as many people with autism do. It can also be hard to know whether stimming behaviors (self-stimulator behaviors) such as flapping or pacing are really a sign of anxiety, or just a symptom of the underlying autism.
Reasons why Anxiety is common in Autism
No one really knowns why anxiety is common in autism. There are two theories for this, based on research and logical conclusions:
- Anxiety is a common symptom of autism, which may be caused by the same combination of genes and environmental factors as autism itself.
- People with autism may experience anxiety due to the common challenges they face. These common challenges include:
- Sensory Assaults such a bright lights, loud noises, large crowds etc. which can be extremely discomforting.
- Bullying and Intolerance – Autistic kids are different from their peers and cannot tell the difference between teasing and bullying. This causes an increase in their anxiety levels.
- Communication Challenges – Spoken language can be difficult for people with autism. Tone of voice and non-verbal body language are hard to distinguish, while idioms and slang can be incomprehensible.
- Social Challenges – People on the autism spectrum can rarely gauge a complex social situation and respond appropriately. It can induce anxiety when they cannot interpret common social situations.
Diagnosing anxiety in autistic people can be extremely difficult as common autism symptoms closely resemble those of anxiety. Rocking, flicking, pacing, saying or doing the same things over and over again can help avoid social interaction and are all actions that would look like severe anxiety in a typically developing person.
These behaviors are self-calming techniques in some cases and reflect a response to anxiety. In other cases, these behaviors do not seem to relate to anxiety and are simply a part of being autistic. Many people with autism have difficulty communicating their emotional state to others. This means many people on the spectrum are non-verbal, while others have minimal use of language. It is not always easy to recognize anxiety in autism. However, these are some of the tell-tale symptoms. People with autism may:
- Appear frightened or apprehensive
- Be unwilling to leave the house
- Sweat or shake
- Have more emotional meltdowns than usual or be unusually upset
- Begin to behave in aggressive or self-abusive ways
- Refuse to go into certain places or rooms
- Place hands over eyes or ears
- Appear unusually jumpy
Tips for Managing Anxiety
There are many techniques for avoiding, reducing, and managing anxiety in people with autism. The first step is to determine the causes of anxiety. Once you know that, you can take productive action such as:
- Removing the cause of anxiety or removing the person from the anxiety causing situation.
- Making accommodations or providing supports such as sound canceling headphones or sunglasses to reduce sensory challenges.
- Teaching techniques for managing anxiety, such as squeezing stress balls, counting to ten, meditating, and exercises are all useful methods for managing stress and anxiety.
- Some kids may need therapies and medications to help reduce anxiety in autism.
It can be very hard to know if a person with autism is experiencing anxiety. As a result, anxiety is undertreated among those on the spectrum. It is important to stay alert to signs that your loved one with autism is not behaving in a way that is normal for him or her, and help them address this anxiety with empathy.