Understanding the Links Between Autism and Anxiety
When you’re the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, you may have a general idea of how stressful or unfamiliar things cause them trauma or lead to outbursts.
For example, if you were driving with your child and you were in a car accident, that trigger could lead to a severe meltdown because of the stress and the unfamiliar, scary element.
Understanding the Links Between Autism and Anxiety
Then, those everyday situations aren’t as obvious where you might see links between autism and anxiety.
Here are some things to know about the relationship between Autism and Anxiety. We’ll discuss some of the triggers and steps you can take to help.
There are a few general key points to keep in mind.
First, a child or teen who is autistic can experience more intense and frequent anxiety than other children. A big part of managing that potential anxiety relies on identifying triggers and recognizing your child’s feelings before the situation becomes bigger.
Autistic children can feel the same worries and fears as other children, but they can also experience anxiety from things that might not cause anxiety in other kids.
For example, even a minor disruption in routine can create significant anxiety in children with autism.
Being in unfamiliar situations or unpredictable scenarios can trigger anxiety, and a child’s thoughts and feelings can then lead to a pattern of anxiety.
There are links between anxiety and autism, not just in children but also in adults.
For example, a study recently found that anxiety disorders are diagnosed in over 20% of adults with autism spectrum disorder, while only 8.7% of neurotypical adults have anxiety.
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
When a child who is autistic gets anxious, sometimes it can be challenging to discern the symptoms from the autism characteristics. For example, symptoms that overlap can include stimming, changes in routine, and ritualistic or obsessive behavior.
An autistic child may have difficulty recognizing and expressing what they’re feeling.
Instead, you might start to notice that when their anxiety is heightened, their behavior becomes more challenging to deal with.
A child with autism and is also experiencing anxiety might have more problems sleeping, have emotional outbursts, or withdraw from social situations.
The more you can start to understand what triggers your autistic child’s anxiety, the better equipped you are to take steps to avoid these triggers or help them manage their anxiety when they can’t avoid the trigger.
Every child is different, but some of the more frequent triggers include:
- Unstructured time. Children without autism may enjoy the unstructured time. It can be something they look forward to, but for a child with autism, it could be something that creates significant anxiety. Routine is imperative for people with ASD.
- Sensory issues. You probably already know if your child is hypersensitive to things like loud noises and bright lights. However, some smells or crowded spaces can trigger anxiety as well. Your child, with prolonged exposure to something that creates anxiety, may lose all behavioral control.
- Social situations. Any social situation can be a trigger for someone with ASD, but especially if it’s unfamiliar.
- Phobias. A specific phobia can be a trigger for anxiety, and that could be any number of things. It might be something as simple as a toilet flushing.
How Is Anxiety Managed?
Anxiety is a separate disorder from autism, and it has to be treated as such.
In adults, doctors might use a combination of medication and therapy to help with anxiety in autism. This could mean physicians would combine something like an antidepressant with behavioral therapy.
There’s less tendency to use medications for children, but therapy could still be utilized.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often the preferred treatment option in young people with anxiety disorders and ASD.
When someone goes through cognitive-behavioral therapy for ASD, they might differentiate between unhelpful and helpful anxiety. Doctors might include their parents as well to learn various interventions.
What Parents Can Do
As well as therapy and professional interventions, there are things you might be able to do to help your child too.
For example, you can work on helping your child practice situations where they experience anxiety. You can slowly introduce them to these situations or do role-playing to become more comfortable.
You can also use visual tools, which is commonly done in therapy.
For example, if your child gets anxious about a particular part of the day, take photos of what they’re going to do during that time and show them.
Along with images, you can do social stories. You can read social stories that reference particular events before you do them. It helps model how to overcome your child’s anxiety in that setting before they experience it.
You can help your child find ways to cope with anxiety or stress that are healthy and productive.
This might mean jumping on the trampoline during times of anxiety or taking deep breaths. It may take some time for your child to find what works for them as a coping mechanism.
When you become more aware of your child’s signs of anxiety, you can plan to try and leave that situation or begin to regulate before it becomes a meltdown.
Another helpful thing you can do as a parent if your child struggles with anxiety is create a safe space.
A safe space shouldn’t be relied on regularly, though. It should just be an option in challenging situations. If you use a safe space too often, it can become a crutch and an escape.
The biggest takeaway is that anxiety is common in children with anxiety, but it’s also a separate disorder that can require treatment and strategies.