Understanding Anxiety in Children with Autism

When you have a child with autism, you start to learn that minor events can create anxiety for them. More significant events can be very traumatic and disruptive.

For example, if you have a child with autism and you’re involved in a car accident, that can be something that’s incredibly impactful to them. Even beyond something that’s overtly traumatic, everyday events can also be traumatic and create anxiety for a child with autism.

Around 70% of kids with autism will have a co-occurring psychiatric disorder. Most commonly, these disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

The following are things to know about anxiety in children with autism and people with autism in general.

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Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Most Prevalent Types of Anxiety Disorders

Not all anxiety disorders are the same. Researchers have found around 40% of children with ASD have at least one diagnosed anxiety disorder as well.

The most common among these include a specific phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.

Children with ASD tend to have more severe symptoms of these anxiety disorders than other children.

Common Behaviors

There are overlaps between the symptoms you might see in your child with autism due to the autism itself and then the things that can signify an anxiety disorder is present. It’s essential if you notice any symptoms that you think could convey anxiety to talk to your child’s health care provider. While there are overlaps in symptoms, autism and anxiety are separate and different disorders, each of which must be treated accordingly.

If your child is dealing with anxiety, including trauma from a particular event, they may have intense physical symptoms. For example, they can have sweating, tension in their muscles or stomachaches. Extreme anxiety in a child with autism can also lead to repetitive behaviors with no apparent function, such as shredding clothes or paper.

Looking for these behaviors and identifying patterns as a parent or caretaker is hard because people with ASD have problems communicating. You may have to observe for these outward manifestations of anxiety or PTSD.

Due to how difficult it is to see anxiety in children with autism, many researchers are looking at better ways to measure the symptoms. One way is for your child’s therapist to regularly interview you as the adult who interacts with them most often. There are, of course issues with that, though, because your reporting might not always be consistent.

If you’re the parent of a child with autism, you might not even see the behaviors at all, so you may need to speak to your child’s teacher regularly, for example. The symptoms might be occurring exclusively at home.

The Role of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

If your child with ASD also receives a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, there are treatments available. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is incredibly effective.

With cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT, your child will work with a therapist to take small steps toward dealing with situations that cause anxiety. Your child will also likely learn coping mechanisms and how to relax in distressing situations.

Cognitive restructuring is a crucial premise of CBT. With cognitive restructuring, your child works to identify and change their negative or irrational ways of thinking.

When you participate in CBT, you can change what’s described as maladaptive thinking that impacts behavior.

Of course, CBT has to be approached in a different way for children with ASD. For example, it’s often a therapy that’s very verbal. Luckily, some practitioners and researchers have created CBT approaches specific to children with ASD and anxiety.

What You Can Do As a Parent

As a parent, there are things you can do to help your child with anxiety too.

For example, you can encourage your child and reward them for doing brave things for them. When your child is showing excessively anxious behaviors, try to ignore those.

You can also work to identify what your child’s realistic fears might be versus the ones that aren’t.

Model “brave” behaviors yourself, and also convey your own sense of confidence in how your child will handle situations that have been traumatic or distressing for them.

Behavioral treatment can be a critical resource to help your child with ASD and anxiety, but before you can get to that point, you need a definitive diagnosis. A good starting place is to keep a journal of your child’s behaviors and reactions to specific situations, and you can go from there, working with their health care providers.

This is a contributed post and therefore may not reflect the views and opinions of this blog or its author.

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