Help Reduce Anxiety in Children with Autism

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Last night for the first time, I believe Andrew had his first panic attack. He couldn’t catch his breathe, his heart was racing, he was sweaty, and just all over the place.  He wanted me, then didn’t want me then he wanted Andy then didn’t want Andy.  Nothing we did could comfort him.  When I tried to ignore him and walk away, he panicked more and screamed for me. No mother nor parent should have to watch her child go through this, especially so young at 4 years old.  They are supposed to be innocent without any cares or burdens in their world.  That is our cross to bare as their parents.  But it’s a whole different ball being the parent of a child on the spectrum.

**This video is of my son in is panic state.  I am sharing this so others can be others can be aware if a spectrum parent.  This brings to tears each time I watch and experience it.**

For children with autism, anxiety can occur more frequently and can be very intense. Seemingly simple daily activities such as leaving the house, interacting with peers, riding in the car, or taking public transportation can become increasingly difficult and anxiety provoking.  In order to help children who may be experiencing anxiety, it is important for parents and teachers to understand anxiety and how it may be affecting children with autism.

It is estimated that 18% of the entire population has some form of anxiety disorder. There have been several studies that show varying results, but it is estimated that between 11% and 84% of people with autism also have an anxiety disorder. It’s not exactly known why these studies have shown such a wide variety of results, but there is some knowledge as to why anxiety may occur in people with autism at a higher rate than for the general population.

Overlapping criteria. The characteristics of autism and anxiety can sometimes overlap. Often times, children who have autism and anxiety can display their anxieties through a variety of behaviors. These can include becoming over-stimulated, heavily dependent on schedules, self-injuring, outbursts of emotion, or becoming withdrawn. These behaviors are characteristics of both autism and anxiety, and when an individual has both, the anxiety symptoms can be intensified.

Fear of how others are perceiving them. Some people with autism struggle with social skills such as eye contact, conversation, and reading body language or expressions. People with autism may develop anxiety because they fear that others may be criticizing them for their actions or struggles in social situations. They may feel as though they need to monitor their own actions, which can lead to more anxiety within social interactions due to overthinking and overanalyzing their own actions.

Types of anxiety and what to look for

There are many different types of anxiety. While any form of anxiety can occur in someone with autism, according to the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at Indiana University Bloomington, the most likely to occur are specific phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social anxiety.

Specific Phobia. Specific phobia occurs frequently in those who have autism. This type of anxiety is when a person has a fear of a certain object, place, or situation. For example, someone may be afraid of bees and avoids going outside in the summer, or someone may be afraid of toilets, cats, or amusement parks and avoid these places as well. Individuals with specific phobia will often avoid any situation where there is a chance they will encounter their fear, which leads to a very restricted lifestyle. In cases where the child has significant autism, caregivers should be aware of the environment when anxiety occurs. This can help pinpoint what is triggering the anxiety in children who may not be able to communicate their anxieties.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Repetitive and obsessive behaviors often characterize this type of anxiety disorder. People with OCD will often feel that if they do not perform a certain activity repeatedly or a certain number of times, something negative will happen. This disorder can interfere with daily life in a number of ways, including obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions that can overtake their life.

Social anxiety. Social anxiety is seen frequently in children who have autism. This may be because many people with autism struggle with social interactions, which can include eye contact, conversation, social cues, and body language. Social anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways, including avoiding social situations altogether, becoming shaky or sweaty during social situations, or having a racing heartbeat.

Five Ways to Help Your Child With Anxiety

  1. Pinpoint what triggers anxiety. Identifying what causes the child’s anxiety can be helpful in identifying ways to help them. If the anxiety trigger is known, you can help the child cope with and possibly overcome their fears. Parents and teachers may encourage the child to engage in situations that are anxiety provoking (but safe), and praise or reward the child when they do so.
  2. Visual Schedules and Transitions. Children with anxiety and autism often struggle to transition between activities at school and during daily life. The struggle to transition between activities can often be intensified if children are transitioning between a high-preference activity and an activity they do not enjoy. To help with this, many children can benefit from a visual schedule, which may include a picture of the activity and a time that the activity will occur. These schedules can help children know what to expect and in turn reduce anxiety levels. It may also be helpful to show the child a picture or video of transitioning smoothly to the next activity before doing so. The video or picture can provide a positive example of a smooth transition, but can also help the child know what is coming up next.
  3. Safe spacesFor children who have anxiety, providing a safe space for them when they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed can be helpful. However, it is important to keep in mind that a safe space should not be used as a regular solution to anxiety. Rather, it should be used only when needed during extreme situations. If a safe space is overused they could become a way to escape daily life and activities in fear of anxiety triggers, which is not the intention. Often, a child who is experiencing social anxiety at school will become overwhelmed while interacting with peers in group settings, walking down a busy hallway, or eating in a noisy lunchroom. If a child is experiencing extreme anxiety from these things, a teacher may create a safe space that can include beanbags, calming games such as some puzzles, stress balls, or relaxing music. Different things will relax different children, so it’s important to keep the child’s individual needs in mind while creating a safe space.
  4. Relaxation techniques. There’s a lot of recent research coming into schools about relaxation techniques such as meditation. Meditation has been shown to help many students reduce their anxiety levels, from test-taking anxiety to anxiety in daily life. However, meditation may not be the right fit for every student who is experiencing anxiety, which is important to keep in mind while searching for anxiety reducing techniques. Stages Learning has put together helpful sheet on how to introduce and use meditation for children with autism.
  5. Social Stories. Social stories can be a great way for teachers and parents to show children situations before they happen. A social story can be as simple as a story about walking to the cafeteria or going to a grocery store, but the story should model what events will likely occur during the situation. By reading the social story before the event happens, children may feel less anxious about what is going to happen. It’s also an option to create a social story that shows something anxiety provoking, and modeling a way to overcome this. By modeling this through a social story, children may be more likely to handle the situation in a calm manner. Stages Learning Language Builder Sequencing Cards help children navigate transitions by providing visual cues as to what is going to happen next such as washing hands, brushing teeth, or what is involved in going to the grocery store. Because children with autism are frequently visual learners it can help children understand a social story by providing a set of cards indicating next steps.


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  One thought on “Help Reduce Anxiety in Children with Autism

  1. Judy christmas
    August 2, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    You are rite however you cannot predict what is going to happen in a store or social situations. Andrew in my option has these anxieties but always have. I think some people should try to use old fashion trying to reach that child. One has to remember he has a sibling that get awarded difrently then he does. Having 2 children so close in age was hard. So close but need to be treated difrently. Many time the older child feels the parent or others like the younger better and will do things to try to out do that child. A lot of the time the younger takes over. They are smarter then we give them credit for. The observe the behavior and will try to revert the parent from attending what situation. Most of the time this starts a drift between the children fighting for affection. They are best friends yet enemies at the same time. It is hard for parents to give each child special time alone just the two of you. Spending that time away from the other child can cause the child to become feeling neglected or not as worthy as the other. I went through this only advise I could give is use your support system. Include family to help. I didn’t, I didn’t live close to family. The kids don’t bond with family members and you do not get the benefit for respite time. Parents need to take time for each other, they need to be a force together. You need that adult relationship. If the kids Aren’t used to family they are either scared or reluctant to stay with them to give you that special respite time even if it’s a lunch.

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