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Understanding Anxiety in Autism: Causes and Symptoms

child hugging mother's side

Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also experience anxiety. The presence of anxiety can further complicate common challenges of ASD, interfering with daily functioning, social interactions and overall well-being. Collaborating with health care professionals and educators can help you develop strategies that support your child and help them manage symptoms.

Learn more about autism and anxiety symptoms, causes and effective treatment strategies that can help your child thrive and reach their full potential.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism, formerly known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects communication, social interaction and behavior. It comes with a wide range of symptoms and levels of impairment, which is why it is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder. Children with autism often display signs like:

  • Communication challenges: Children with ASD may struggle with verbal and non-verbal communication. They may have difficulty understanding and using language, have limited eye contact and display certain gestures or body language.
  • Social difficulties: Kids with ASD often experience social interaction and relationship challenges. They may struggle to understand social cues, engage in reciprocal conversation and develop friendships.
  • Repetitive behaviors and special interests: People with ASD often engage in repetitive behaviors, such as hand-flapping, rocking or rigid adherence to routines. They may also develop intense interests in specific topics and demonstrate a strong need for sameness and predictability.
  • Sensory sensitivities: Many individuals with ASD have heightened or reduced sensitivity to sensory stimuli. They may be overreactive or under-reactive to sounds, textures, tastes or smells. Sensory sensitivities can impact their daily routines and cause anxiety or discomfort.

The symptoms of ASD typically emerge in early childhood, often before the age of three. However, ASD is a lifelong condition, and symptoms may vary in severity over time.

What Is Anxiety?

An anxiety disorder is a mental health condition characterized by excessive, persistent and debilitating feelings of anxiety or fear. It goes beyond the normal range of everyday worries and can seriously interfere with a person’s daily functioning, relationships and overall well-being. Symptoms of anxiety can include the following:

  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Muscle tension or aches
  • Sleep disturbances, such as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Racing thoughts or intrusive thoughts
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating or trembling
  • Avoidance of situations that trigger anxiety

It’s important to note that individuals may experience a combination of these symptoms, and the severity and duration can vary. Consulting with a health care professional is recommended for proper evaluation and support.

Causes and Symptoms of Anxiety in Children With Autism

Anxiety disorder and autism are often linked, with anxiety exacerbating symptoms of autism. There are many types of anxiety disorders, with the most common in children with ASD including specific phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Understanding the causes of symptoms of these conditions can help you get proper support and treatment for your child.

Causes of anxiety in children with autism can vary, but here are some common ones:

  • Sensory sensitivities: Many children with autism have heightened sensory sensitivities, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety. Overwhelming sounds, bright lights or certain textures can trigger anxiety in these children.
  • Social challenges: Children with autism often struggle with social interactions, which can lead to feelings of anxiety. Difficulty understanding social cues, forming friendships or participating in group activities can contribute to social anxiety.
  • Communication barriers: Language and communication difficulties in children with autism can hinder their ability to express their thoughts, emotions or concerns. This lack of expressive communication can lead to internalized anxiety.
  • Cognitive processing differences: The cognitive processing style often seen in children with autism, such as focusing on detail or rigid thinking, can contribute to anxiety. Difficulty adapting to changes or unpredictable situations can cause distress and anxiety.
  • Environmental factors: Environmental changes or disruptions in routines can be particularly anxiety-inducing for children with autism, as they thrive on predictability and sameness. Moving to a new place, starting a new school or encountering unfamiliar situations can trigger anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety and autism often overlap, causing the following:

  • Excessive worry: Children with autism and anxiety may experience persistent and excessive worry about various aspects of their lives, such as school, social interactions or future events.
  • Physical symptoms: Anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, stomachaches, headaches or other bodily discomfort.
  • Changes in behavior: Children with autism and anxiety may exhibit changes in behavior, such as increased agitation, irritability, restlessness or being easily overwhelmed.
  • Sleep disturbances: Anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep, frequent nighttime awakenings or nightmares.
  • Rigidity and rituals: Anxiety can contribute to increased rigidity and a need for sameness in children with autism. They may develop rigid routines or engage in repetitive behaviors to cope with anxiety.
  • Emotional outbursts: Anxiety can heighten emotional reactivity, leading to increased emotional outbursts, meltdowns or tantrums in children with autism.

Treatment for Anxiety and Autism

When treating anxiety in children with autism, a comprehensive and individualized approach is crucial. Here are some common strategies used in the treatment of anxiety in children with autism:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT techniques are often effective in treating anxiety. It helps children identify and challenge negative thoughts, develop coping strategies and gradually face feared situations through exposure therapy.
  • Sensory integration therapy: For children with autism, sensory sensitivities can contribute to anxiety. Sensory integration therapy aims to address these sensitivities and help children better process sensory information, reducing anxiety-related distress.
  • Visual supports and social stories: Visual supports, such as visible schedules or social stories, can provide structure and predictability, easing anxiety in children with autism. These tools help children understand and prepare for upcoming events or changes.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication may be considered to manage anxiety symptoms in children with autism.
  • Parent and caregiver education: Educating yourself and caregivers about anxiety disorder and autism can help you understand your child’s unique challenges. This knowledge enables you to provide appropriate support, implement strategies at home and create a supportive environment.
  • Social skills training: Social skills training can help children with autism improve their social interactions and reduce social anxiety. They learn appropriate social behaviors, crucial communication skills and how to navigate social situations effectively.
  • Emotional regulation techniques: Teaching children with autism techniques to regulate their emotions, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness or relaxation techniques, can help reduce anxiety and promote self-calming skills.

Kids Spot Can Help With an Autism and Anxiety Diagnosis

Anxiety can cause further challenges for kids with autism. Since every child is different, treatment plans should be tailored to their specific needs. At Kids Spot, our experienced team specializes in providing comprehensive services tailored to the unique needs of children with autism. We offer evidence-based interventions, including ABA therapy, speech and occupational therapy, and anxiety management techniques.

With our compassionate and skilled professionals, we create a supportive environment where children can thrive and develop strategies to cope with anxiety. Contact us today and let us assist your child on their journey towards improved well-being and a brighter future.