How Social Anxiety Affects Individuals With Autism: Tips for Coping
We understand the challenges social anxiety presents in individuals with autism. These often co-occur and overlap, making coping particularly stressful in certain social settings.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety develops through a seemingly irrational fear of being exposed and embarrassed in social situations. Anxiety manifests in physical reactions like increased heart rate, shortness of breath, nausea and trembling. The symptoms are sometimes confused with that of a panic attack.
Social anxiety is often misdiagnosed as autism and vice versa, although completely different. Some similarities that could lead to confusion include:
- Difficulty making and keeping eye contact.
- Tendency to be nervous around strangers, especially in social settings.
- Difficulty adjusting to plans, especially unexpected changes.
- Strong social avoidance, specifically speaking to unfamiliar people.
With social anxiety, the focus is on the individual’s desire to belong or be involved in social activities. Their fear of being judged or humiliated overwhelms them, so they avoid these situations entirely. The differences between autism and social anxiety are subtle, but an accurate diagnosis of each will provide the necessary clarity.
How Does Social Anxiety Affect Children With Autism?
Children with autism inherently battle the pressures of social situations, which are heightened by social anxiety. The accompanying disorder impedes their social skills development, making establishing and maintaining friendships hard. Interpersonal relationships are rare — social exposure may lead to bullying and criticism due to their lack of interaction with others.
The ability to perceive is limited in children with autism. With insufficient resources to build associations, cognitive awareness and understanding of social cues, they may misread situations. How they perceive social interactions, settings and contexts is distinctively different from others, proving it challenging to identify and interpret.
Tips on How Children With Autism Can Cope With Social Anxiety
Supporting children with autism requires a deep understanding and empathy towards their feelings. Because they see the world differently, we must be mindful of our interactions and reduce their exposure to anxiety and stress as much as possible. There are ways we can help soothe them so they are better equipped to cope with social anxiety. We’ve listed a few tips on how they can cope below.
1. Identify and Familiarize Your Child’s Distress Signals
Children with autism may get overwhelmed when they are overstimulated, causing physical reactions and changes in their behavior. Each individual’s response differs, but you can help them cope by identifying and becoming familiar with their distress signals. The sooner you can identify that they’re troubled, the sooner you can help calm their anxiety. It’s important to do this before the situation escalates and they break down.
Part of identifying their distress signals is knowing what triggers their anxiety. This is pinpointing the exact causes while exposed to social settings. Sometimes introducing them to these in small doses to help them overcome them and rewarding their attempts can prove fruitful, but this is never guaranteed. It depends on how severe their anxiety is.
2. Implement a Routine Sensory Diet Program
A qualified occupational therapist (OT) may formulate a sensory diet for a child with autism. Although called a diet, it is purely activity-based to help them maintain the neurochemical flow that assists with learning. It is important for them to engage in learning, as it helps develop their perception and skills necessary during social interactions.
The activities help stimulate various learning aspects related to concentration levels and response-ability. This program focuses on sensory stimulation to achieve the desired results. Some activity examples and suggestions include:
- Muscular-based activities: Jumping on one spot or a trampoline, swinging from monkey bars, carrying heavy books around, wheelbarrow walking, tug-of-war, chair or book stacking, drumming, push-ups and other weight-based activities that require effort and strength may help.
- Oral activities: Oral activities include tasting or eating various foods that stimulate the taste senses, like sour, sweet, or salty food, and perceiving texture, like crunchy, smooth, hard, or soft. Activities like sucking, chewing, and blowing help promote focus.
- Touch activities: Touch activities are designed to stimulate the tactile or touch senses, like playing with materials of varying textures. These include sand, Play-Doh, rice, sugar, jelly, beans, pasta, water and similar.
- Movement activities: Some helpful movement activities could include bike or scooter riding, swinging, jumping, or windmills.
You can generally identify an understimulated child if they show signs of being lethargic despite the physical stimulation, move slower, or have a shorter or decreased attention span. If a child shows discomfort during any activity, cease it immediately. This program must be developed by a professional OT and must be adhered to stringently but not be forced on them.
3. Provide Them With a Sensory Safe Space
Any time a child experiences sensory overload, they may withdraw and avoid contact. By providing them with a safe space to ”offload’, you regain their trust and confidence to continue when they’re ready. Confine an area where they can enjoy silence and peace in solitude.
4. Implement Relaxation Techniques
Most stressful situations can be mitigated through calming and relaxation techniques. Removing a child from a distressing social environment and applying a technique to promote their peace is helpful. Methods include meditation, deep breathing, gentle humming and swaying, warm hugs and comforting words of affirmation. These are immediate ways you could help soothe them.
5. Keep Fidget Toys Close
Children with autism find solace in repetitive actions like rocking back and forth when anxious. Having a fidget toy at hand is helpful because of the consistent pressure applied when handling it, which also helps promote muscular sensory activity.
How Kids SPOT Can Help With Anxiety
While there are tips to help cope with autism and social anxiety in children, it is not a one-size-fits-all remedy for every situation. We recommend consulting an experienced Occupational or ABA Therapist who will tailor their services to the individual’s needs.
Kids SPOT has various treatments to help. We focus on pediatric therapy while specializing in speech, physical, and occupational therapy for children and adolescents from birth to 21 years. Our ABA therapy is specially designed to treat Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and related disorders. Our range of services is comprehensive, with numerous benefits for patients, some of which include:
- Assisting in developing children’s physical, social, and cognitive skills to promote social engagement.
- Helping children process information through sensory stimulation.
- Preparing children with autism and social anxiety for school and integrating into society as adults.
- Boosting confidence and independence to handle stressful situations by themselves over time.
There are many more benefits for children with autism, all aimed at enhancing their quality of life.
Contact Kids SPOT for Anxiety Treatment Today
Whichever service you need, Kids SPOT can assist. Whether for ABA, speech, physical, or occupational therapy, we go out of our way for our patients. Find a location near you and specify the service you require.
When you’re ready to discuss your needs with us, complete a contact request form, and we will call you back.