Did you know that anxiety is one of the most common co-occurring conditions in children with autism? Learning how anxiety can affect people with autism can help you understand their experiences. You may also want to keep reading to learn some crucial tips that can help you manage anxiety in people with autism.
What is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autism is a neurological disorder that affects how an individual perceives and interacts with the world around them. Autism typically manifests itself in early childhood, and symptoms can range from mild to severe. Some common symptoms of autism include difficulty in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an ordinary emotion people feel in response to perceived dangers or threats. However, when this feeling becomes excessive and persistent, it may be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder. People with anxiety disorders often experience irritability, restlessness, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, and sleep problems.
Signs of Anxiety
- Feeling Restless
If you feel like you can’t sit still or are always on the go, this may be a sign of anxiety. People with anxiety often feel the need to move around or pace back and forth as a way of managing their symptoms.
- Gastrointestinal Issues
Anxiety can manifest in symptoms such as upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea. This is because anxiety can cause changes in digestion and the production of stress hormones.
- Increased Heart Rate
Anxiety can also cause an increase in heart rate or rapid breathing. This is due to the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, which is activated when you feel threatened or anxious.
- Sleep Disturbances
People with anxiety often have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. This is because anxiety can cause racing thoughts, which make it difficult to relax and fall asleep.
- Excessive Worrying
One of the most common symptoms of anxiety is excessive worrying. People with anxiety often worry about things that may never happen, or they may focus on worst-case scenarios. This can make it difficult to concentrate on everyday tasks or enjoy activities.
- Hot Flashes
Anxiety can also cause hot flashes or a feeling of warmth in the body. This is due to the release of stress hormones, which can cause an increase in blood flow and sweating.
Anxiety can cause hyperventilation or rapid and shallow breathing. This is because anxiety makes it difficult to take deep breaths, leading to a feeling of lightheadedness or dizziness.
- Panic Attacks
A panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of anxiety. People with panic disorder often experience chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Panic attacks can be so severe that they cause people to feel like they are having a heart attack or going crazy.
It is not uncommon for people with autism to experience anxiety. Here are several ways that anxiety manifests in people with autism.
How Anxiety Shows up in Autism Spectrum Disorder
A person with autism may experience anxiety in ways that are unique to their condition. For example, a person with autism may become anxious in response to routine changes or exposure to new environments or people. Here are some other ways that anxiety may manifest in people with autism:
- Separation Anxiety
A person with autism may experience separation anxiety when they are away from their caregivers or loved ones. This can make it difficult for them to go to school or work or to participate in activities outside the home.
- Trouble Adjusting to New Surroundings
People with autism may have difficulty adjusting to new surroundings, such as a new school or workplace. This can be due to the changes in routine that are often associated with new environments.
- Fear of Meeting New People
People with autism may be afraid of meeting new people due to the fear of the unknown. This can make it difficult for them to make friends or participate in social activities.
People with autism may be more sensitive to specific sensory inputs, such as loud noises or bright lights. This can make them feel overwhelmed and anxious in certain environments.
- Severe Phobia
A person with autism may have a severe phobia, such as a fear of heights or animals. This can make it difficult for them to participate in activities or go to places that trigger their fear.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
People with autism may have OCD, characterized by repetitive behaviors or thoughts. This can make it difficult for them to perform everyday tasks or interact with others.
- Social Anxiety
People with autism may have social anxiety and a fear of social situations. This can make it difficult for them to interact with others or engage in social pursuits.
- Severe Distress in New Environment
People with autism may feel severe distress when they are in new environments or exposed to a new routine. This can make it difficult for them to participate in activities outside their comfort zone.
Why Do Autistic People Have Anxiety?
It is estimated that roughly 40% to 50% of people with autism are diagnosed with clinical anxiety. Several factors may contribute to anxiety in people with autism, such as:
- Exposure to Various Social Situations and Degrees of Sensory Overload
People with autism may have difficulty navigating various social situations due to social interaction challenges. They may also be overloaded by sensory input due to their heightened sensitivity to certain stimuli, which can raise stress levels and lead to anxiety.
- Difficulty Understanding and Interpreting Social Cues
People with autism may have difficulty understanding and interpreting social cues, such as body language and facial expressions. This can make it difficult for them to navigate social interactions, leading to increased anxiety levels.
- Lack of Social Skills
People with autism often lack the social skills necessary to navigate social interactions. This can lead to feelings of anxiety and isolation in people with autism.
- Difficulty Processing Emotions
People with autism may have difficulty processing emotions, leading to anxiety. People with autism often have difficulty understanding and expressing feelings, making it difficult to cope with life stressors.
Treatment for Anxiety in Autism
There are numerous therapies that can be effective in treating anxiety in people with autism, such as:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – CBT is a therapy that helps people change their thoughts and behaviors.
- Mindfulness Training – Mindfulness training is a type of therapy that teaches people to be aware of their thoughts and emotions.
- Exposure Therapy – Exposure therapy is a type of therapy that helps people to confront their fears.
- Low Arousal Techniques – Low arousal techniques are a type of therapy that helps people to reduce their anxiety by calming their body and mind.
- Sensory Integration Training – Sensory integration training is a therapy that helps people use all their senses together. This type of therapy has been known to improve repetitive behavior.
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy – ABA is a therapy that uses positive reinforcement to help people change their thoughts and behaviors.
There are several medications that can be effective in treating anxiety in people with autism, such as. For instance, antidepressants are medications that can help to improve mood and reduce anxiety. However, research about anti-depressants’ impact on people with autism is mixed.
Tips for Dealing With Autism and Anxiety
Identify Your Triggers
One of the first steps to managing anxiety is to identify your triggers. Once you know what makes you anxious, you can develop a plan to avoid or cope with those triggers.
Manage Energy Levels
People with autism often have difficulty regulating their energy levels. This can lead to anxiety and meltdowns. To help manage your energy levels, you can try to get regular sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and avoid consuming anything with caffeine.
Make the Environment Work for You
People with autism often have difficulty with sensory overload. To help make your environment work for you, you can try to reduce the amount of sensory input in your environment. This may include wearing noise-canceling headphones or earplugs, using a weighted blanket, and avoiding bright lights.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques can help reduce anxiety. Some relaxation techniques that you can try include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.
People with autism often benefit from having a visual schedule. A visual schedule can help to provide structure and predictability, which can help to reduce anxiety.
The Bottom Line
Autism and anxiety can be a complex combination to deal with. However, there are several effective treatments and coping strategies that can help. If you or someone you know struggles with anxiety and autism, reach out to a mental health professional for help.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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