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How to Recognize Anxiety in Autistic Individuals

Many children with autism spectrum disorder also experience anxiety, with nearly 40% receiving an anxiety diagnosis at some point. The reasons for this vary, but many anxiety symptoms in autistic kids stem from and overlap with specific phobias, obsessions and compulsions. As a parent, you might notice your child stimming more or displaying unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result of anxiety. Still, symptoms can vary from child to child, and there are many ways to manage them.

Learn the signs of anxiety in autistic children and specific treatments that can improve your child’s day-to-day life.

5 Signs of Anxiety in Kids With Autism

Anxiety disorder can manifest in many ways in children with autism. Common triggers can include:

  • Changes in routine or environment
  • Unfamiliar social situations
  • Sensory sensitivities, such as sensitivity to certain noises, bright lights or food textures
  • Fear of particular situations, activities or objects
  • Times of transition, such as a new school year or the start of puberty

Autistic people might experience the following anxiety symptoms:

1. Avoidance

Anxious autistic children might try to avoid certain situations or experiences that could bring them anxiety. For instance, they might be hesitant to attend social gatherings and talk to others or avoid unfamiliar places and activities. Your child might also have trouble transitioning from one activity to another without experiencing anxiety. Without treatment, anxiety can be enough to deter your child from important life experiences, which can lead to a cycle of avoidance and worsened anxiety.

2. Physical Symptoms

Anxiety in autistic people can manifest in the following physical symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Restlessness
  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Changes in appetite
  • Shortness of breath

Your child might experience internal tension that can also cause agitation and distress. They may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep as a result.

3. Anger

Anxiety is characterized by uncontrollable and irrational bouts of worry and fear. This perception can be enough to trigger a fight or flight situation — leaving your children angry without a way to communicate why. They may experience emotional outbursts in times of anxiety or stress or suddenly oscillate from feelings of calm to anger. The sudden outburst can result from pushing anxiety deep down for so long that one seemingly innocent event sets them off.

Children with anxiety often experience difficulty understanding their emotions, making it harder to understand and process feelings of fear. This can be frightening and result in anxiety in unfamiliar or unpredictable situations.

4. Heightened Sensory Sensitivities

It is well documented that people with autism can have trouble with sensory processing, such as sensitivity to sounds and touch. Feeling bombarded by a constant stream of sensory stimuli can be anxiety provoking. Anxiety can also lead to heightened sensory sensitivities, causing your child to be uncomfortable when dealing with a change in routine or environment. They may become distressed or anxious when faced with unexpected changes, transitions or unpredictability.

5. Repetitive Behaviors

Children with autism and anxiety might engage in more repetitive behaviors or rituals to manage their anxiety. Behaviors might include hand-flapping, body rocking or other self-soothing techniques. They might spend more time on hobbies or interests and become more insistent on routines to manage their uncertainty. Disruptions to routine could lead to more anxiety.

Additionally, children with autism and anxiety might engage in repetitive self-harm behaviors like head-banging, scratching skin or hand-biting.

How to Treat Anxiety in Children With Autism

Fortunately, there are several ways you can help your child manage anxiety and make their day-to-day life more comfortable.

  • Parent education: As a parent, it’s crucial to learn the signs of anxiety so you can help your child recognize it in themselves and provide appropriate support. Your autistic child might need to learn what anxiety feels like in their body and how it can manifest in certain behaviors. That way, they can try different coping skills to calm their symptoms.
  • Identify triggers: It’s helpful to identify your child’s anxiety triggers, whether it’s changes to routine, social interactions or sensory stimuli. Determining these external stressors can help you work with your child to manage their reactions.
  • Relaxation techniques: Relaxation and calming behaviors can help your child manage their anxiety symptoms, such as counting slowly to 10, taking five deep breaths or reading a favorite book.
  • Visual supports: Having visible schedules and other supports can provide organization and predictability, helping to ease your child’s worries. Visual supports can also include photographs, drawings, objects or lists. These tools can help your child understand and prepare for upcoming events or transitions, such as moving schools or meeting new people.
  • Sensory integration therapy: Since sensory sensitivities can contribute to anxiety in kids with autism, sensory integration therapy can be crucial. This form of treatment can address your child’s specific sensitivity and help them process it better while easing distress. Over time, they may reduce repetitive behaviors in response to particular stimuli.
  • Social skills training: Social skills training can help your child overcome social avoidance and reduce anxiety from these experiences. Your child can learn better communication skills and how to navigate social interactions effectively.
  • Encourage bravery: Another way you can help your child combat anxiety is by rewarding and encouraging brave behaviors. Let them know you are proud of them for conquering adversities and other anxiety-inducing situations. This can help your child learn what is realistic or unrealistic fear and convey confidence in their ability to handle life’s challenges.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Professionals can also help your child manage anxiety with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT involves identifying and challenging negative thoughts, establishing healthy coping skills and gradually facing situations that could trigger anxiety through exposure therapy. Over time, your child can learn to implement these strategies into their life and combat anxiety daily.

The most effective form of anxiety treatment for kids with autism is a comprehensive, individualized approach. Seeing a professional can ensure your child gets proper treatment tailored to their needs.

Kids SPOT Can Help Your Child Manage Anxiety

Anxiety can make it more challenging for children with autism to process change, social situations, and unpredictability. It can also lead to heightened autism symptoms like repetitive behaviors and sensory sensitivity. Fortunately, different coping mechanisms can help them combat anxiety. Seeking professional help can also prove valuable. Kids SPOT provides a comprehensive pediatric program, including holistic treatments for children with anxiety and autism.

We specialize in various treatments, including speech, physical, occupational, and ABA therapy. Our compassionate team can design a customized treatment program for your child that might include building coping skills, developing communication and reducing avoidance behaviors. Over time, treatment can help your child reduce anxiety and lead a more fulfilling life.

To get started, contact us today.

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