Autism A to Z is winding down and today’s post is going to follow up on something that was mentioned in the comorbidity and autism post. For the letter X, I wanted to cover anxiety in children with autism. Yes, I realize that it’s not a word that starts with x , but cut me a little a slack, okay? The reason that I chose to use anxiety is because it’s one of the more prevalent co-morbid (or co-occuring) conditions with children with autism. Another reason I chose anxiety is because May is Mental Health Awareness month and I wanted to use this post to tie-in with the upcoming posts that I’ll have on anxiety and depression.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is basically worry that never stops. Its symptoms can be severe or mild, and include emotional, physical, and/or psychological manifestations.
What Causes Anxiety?
There is evidence to suggest that the tendency to develop anxiety can be inherited. This genetic tendency may need an environmental trigger of some sort to develop actual anxiety symptoms.
Veterans of wars, survivors of rape and/or sexual abuse, and other victims of traumatic experience can suffer from anxiety. It’s as though the brain can not “move on” from the event, creating patterns of anxious thoughts and physical symptoms.
Those who suffer from anxiety tend to have abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, which means their brains have trouble transmitting information on a cellular level.
Common Treatments for Anxiety
Behavioral therapy is about just that – behavior. It is not designed to delve into the patient’s past, or explore underlying causes of the patient’s anxiety. It does, however, help the patient identify patterns of thinking and behaving, and how those thoughts and behaviors are connected. The goal is to help the patient manage the problem.
This kind of therapy teaches the patient to have rational responses to stressful situations rather than negative, self-abasing responses. Cognitive therapy helps the patient face – and therefore overcome – the irrational thoughts and beliefs that bring on an anxious response.
While there are several anxiety medications on the market, most experts agree that medication should be used in conjunction with some other sort of therapy. Medication is generally considered a short-term help, and, depending on the type of anxiety exhibited, is not a long-term solution.
This is basic, but effective. Exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, the “feel good” brain chemicals that help you relax and feel happy and content. Exercise also uses your muscles and promotes good circulation. Daily exercise is best, but even regular exercise several times a week has proven helpful.
-Meditation or Relaxation Techniques
Like regular exercise, these treatments need to be practiced regularly. They can help release muscle tension. Meditation and relaxation also promote centered, calm patterns of thought.
This treatment basically teaches you how to recogize your body’s anxiety symptoms. It “tunes you in” to your body’s cues so that you can recognize an oncoming episode of anxiety. If you can recognize its onset, you can learn to stop it from getting full-blown.
This usually involves talking to someone, and is sometimes called “talk therapy.” Therapists help the anxiety sufferer understand and identify what is going on, which then enables the sufferer to manage his or her anxiety.
Anxiety in Children with Autism
According to a University of Amsterdam study, almost 40% of children with autism will also be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The breakdown is as follows:
• Specific Phobia: 30%
• Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: 17%
• Social Anxiety Disorder/Agoraphobia: 17%
• Generalized Anxiety Disorder: 15%
• Separation Anxiety Disorder: 9 %
• Panic Disorder: 2%
This study, in addition to several others, have shown that anxiety disorders are more severe in children with autism.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, even without an official diagnosis, some degree of anxiety disorder will exist in a child with autism. However, it can also be difficult to get this diagnosis of an anxiety disorder if the individual is unable to communicate their fears and worries.
Treating Anxiety in Children with Autism
With or without the official diagnosis, it is definitely possible to treat anxiety in children with autism. Just because they don’t have the official diagnosis doesn’t mean that they won’t have some of the overlapping signs.
The most effective treatment for anxiety is CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But, with an individual with autism this may not always work as CBT is very verbal and abstract.
So what else works for treating anxiety in children with autism?
Parental involvement. As parents we are the primary caregiver and we know our children best. If you think that your child may be experiencing anxiety, start keeping a diary or log of recent events.
Did you recently move? Try a new laundry detergent? Daylight savings time?
Any number of things could trigger anxiety in children with autism.
So how can parents help?
My favorite resources tend to be books and here’s a list of six books to help manage anxiety in children with autism.
- Managing Anxiety in People With Autism: A Treatment Guide for Parents, Teachers and Mental Health Professionals (Topics in Autism)
- The Autism Discussion Page on anxiety, behavior, school, and parenting strategies: A toolbox for helping children with autism feel safe, accepted, and competent
- Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-help Guide Using CBT
- From Anxiety to Meltdown: How Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Deal with Anxiety, Experience Meltdowns, Manifest Tantrums, and How You Can Intervene Effectively
- Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety: A Guide to Successful Stress Management
- Self-Regulation Interventions and Strategies: Keeping the Body, Mind & Emotions on Task in Children with Autism, ADHD or Sensory Disorders
How do you manage anxiety in children with autism?
You may also like:
- Calming Strategies for Children with Autism
- Creating a Calming Environment for Autistic Children
- Calming Strategies Printable Pack
- Free Resources for Families with Children on the Autism Spectrum