Autism and Anxiety
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Autistic people have a high risk of having anxiety. Up to 40% of children and around 50% of adults have this mental illness (Rodgers & Ofield, 2018). This blog discusses what causes autistic people to feel anxious and ways to help.
Anxiety usually comes about when you are worried or are fearful about something, whether its a presentation at school, dealing with a bully, or financial worries. Everyone, at some point, feels anxious. This can cause feelings on tension or unease.
Whilst it's normal to feel anxious, anxiety can be more intense in autistic people. It can feel like a lot of your time is spent feeling anxious, even over smaller things, which then disrupts life. Things that can cause anxiety in autistic people include:
changes & fearing the unknown- such as a change in routine or physical development changes
alexithymia- struggling with emotional awareness
struggling to communicate or being social anxious
performance anxiety- in school or at work
trying to fit in or bullies
Signs of Anxiety
It can be hard to differentiate between normal autistic behaviour and signs of anxiety as they are similar. As well as this, as autistic people can have trouble understanding their own emotions and communicating them, they may not realise or be able to tell you they are feeling anxious. Therefore, it is good to understand and know the signs of anxiety. These include:
demanding routine or being obsessive
behaviour difference- sweating, hyperventilating, isolating themselves
behaviour issues- such as emotional outbursts
self harm- such as banging head against a wall
avoid or withdraw from social situations
Tips To Help
Whilst there isn't a way to treat anxiety, there are way to help reduce and manage it.
1. Routine and Avoid Unnecessary Changes
As change and fearing the unknown can cause fear, try to keep to a routine to help minimise the amount of uncertainty. Try to stick to these routines and not miss or change them unless it is absolutely necessary.
2. Prepare For Change
As change is bound to happen at some point or another, it will help to prepare for this change so it becomes less unexpected and fearful. You can do research about the change in question. If you are a parent, you can use social stories to help explain the change to your child.
3. Avoid Triggers
There are certain things, as mentioned above, that can cause anxiety. Whilst you may not be able to prevent all of the above from happening, there are still some that you can control. Such as avoiding places where you, or your child's, senses overload or places where you feel uneasy. A good way to help avoid triggers is to make a note of places where you, or your child, tend to feel uneasy or act out.
4. Reduce Sensory Overload
You can reduce sensory overload in different ways. These include:
Wearing noise cancelling headphones
Changing out bright lights
Wearing a weighted vest or using a weighted blanket
If you are a parent, you can see if your child's school can help adapt the environment for your child. This could include having visual aids, a quiet zone, and being allowed to leave class a little earlier to avoid busy corridors.
A good way to reduce anxiety is to relax or self-soothe. Understand what you, or your child, find relaxing. Some relaxing activities could be:
going into a sensory den
having some quiet time
taking some deep breaths
meditation or yoga
getting some exercise