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The Connection Between Autism and Anxiety Disorders

Child hugging her knees sitting down

If your child with autism struggles with anxiety, you are not alone. Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. While science doesn’t know the exact connection between these disorders yet, research suggests that a relationship does exist.

We know you want the best for your child. Understanding the connection between ASD and anxiety can help you and your child’s doctor choose the right plan of action. A combination of medication and evidence-based therapy can help. In this guide, we’ll explore the overlap between autism and anxiety and how treatment can help your child lead a happy and healthy life.

How Often Does Anxiety Appear in Children With Autism?

Seven percent of children between 3 and 17 in the United States experience anxiety each year, and most adults with anxiety disorders develop symptoms before the age of 21. With 17% of children in the same age bracket being diagnosed with a developmental disability — including ASD — there is bound to be some overlap between the two conditions.

Every child experiences anxiety and ASD differently. Symptoms and the severity of those symptoms vary. The best thing you can do for your child is to seek individualized treatment for support that can help improve their life and well-being.

Anxiety and Autism Similarities

Though anxiety and autism are completely different disorders, they do have these similarities in common:

1. Shared Symptoms

Anxiety and autism can present similar symptoms, such as:

  • Nervousness
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Limited social communication
  • Discomfort with change
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Repetitive behavior

People with anxiety, ASD or both may have trouble making friends and often fear social situations. They worry about people watching and judging them. Loneliness and depression are common with both disorders. Since the overlap in symptoms can make it hard to identify anxiety disorders in people with ASD, it’s important for parents and physicians to pay attention to the signs.

2. Require Individualized Treatment

Anxiety and ASD are complex disorders that present differently in every person. Both exist on a spectrum where the type and severity of symptoms vary. Two people with the same anxiety or ASD diagnosis often experience different challenges. Each case is unique and requires individualized treatment.

3. Originate in the Brain

Though many theories exist, scientists have yet to determine the true cause of anxiety or ASD. Research suggests both disorders may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. We do know that anxiety and ASD impact functioning in the brain. Therefore, treatments for both disorders often overlap.

4. Have No Cure

ASD is classified as a developmental disability that can be detected in children beginning at 6 months old. Research shows that ASD is present from birth, whereas anxiety may not present for many years. Anxiety is classified as a mental disorder that can be triggered at any point in a person’s life. Though children aren’t born with anxiety like they are with ASD, neither disorder is curable. However, treatments for both anxiety and ASD can help lessen the impact and severity of symptoms.

The Relationship Between Anxiety and Autism

Data shows a high prevalence of anxiety disorders in people with ASD. Studies show a connection between traits of autism and anxiety and continue to investigate this relationship. While there are many variables to consider, here are some theories as to why that may be the case:

  • Genetics: Anxiety and ASD may share a genetic origin that researchers have not identified yet.
  • Difficulty with change: Many people with ASD are detail-focused and have trouble adapting to changes in their routine. When a child with autism is confronted with change, they may feel intense anxiety.
  • Sensory issues: It’s common for children with ASD to experience sensory overload. Loud noises, strange smells, uncomfortable clothing and other intense sensory experiences may trigger periods of high anxiety.
  • Social pressure: Many people with ASD experience social disconnection and feel pressure to interact with others in a way that doesn’t come naturally. Feeling judged or self-conscious in social situations may increase anxiety in people with ASD.
  • Limited language: Another characteristic of ASD is difficulty processing and using language. Children who are frequently misunderstood or have trouble expressing their needs may develop anxiety.
  • Frustration: Children with ASD may experience gross and fine motor delays that make daily tasks difficult. The inability to do things independently may cause frustration and anxiety.
  • Lack of support: Individuals with ASD often need support from doctors, family and other people in their lives to manage their symptoms and achieve their goals. Not being able to access resources or feeling unsupported may cause higher levels of anxiety.

Anxiety Disorders Associated With Autism

Here are the different anxiety disorders that can develop in children with ASD:

  • Specific phobias: Roughly 30% of children with ASD have a specific phobia, which is an intense or irrational fear of something that doesn’t pose any real or present danger. Children with ASD tend to be highly sensitive to sensory stimulation and may be more likely to experience a phobia.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): About 17% of children with ASD have OCD, a condition represented by a two-part cycle of obsessive or unwanted thoughts that trigger distress. Those with OCD try to find relief from these thoughts through certain compulsions or behaviors. If your child has ASD and OCD, they may insist on wearing a certain type of clothing or following a set routine.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Approximately 17% of children with ASD have social anxiety disorder. A child with social anxiety feels fear and distress in social situations. This is common in children with ASD who already struggle to understand social cues.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Young children with ASD often develop a separation anxiety disorder. They may become very upset or worried when separated from their home or family. Separation anxiety is common in all children, but those with ASD may need extra help overcoming it.
  • Panic disorder: Though less common, children with ASD may develop panic disorder. Children with panic disorder have frequent and unexpected panic attacks, which often appear to have no cause.

Find Anxiety Treatment for Children With Autism at Kids SPOT

Anxiety disorders are tough to experience and manage, especially for children with ASD. The first step toward helping your child feel better is seeking a professional diagnosis and treatment. At Kids SPOT, we work together to develop an individualized treatment plan to help meet your child’s specific needs. Our compassionate team is ready to help you and your child conquer the symptoms of ASD and anxiety disorder. Find a location near you today! To learn more about our comprehensive and evidence-based interventions, contact us today!

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