Addressing Anxiety and ASD

It is estimated that the prevalence of anxiety in children with ASD to be 30-81% (MacNeil e al. 2009; White et al. 2009). The impact of anxiety on educational success, social participation, friendships and family members is great.  It’s fairly common for children suffering from autism to be diagnosed with anxiety. It’s a significant problem for many individuals with ASD and presents differently in each child. Some children become anxious when changes impact the expected routine. Others become anxious when they are overly stimulated. In my experience, Ryan becomes very anxious when he acknowledges that he has not followed the rules and a consequence will be occurring. Anxiety and autism go hand in hand. I’ve learned this over the years through my own experience as a mother and educator.  

Studies examining the various behaviors linked to autism have always intrigued me. In an article recently published to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, I was struck by the prevalence of anxiety in children with ASD. First, that the repetitive behavior (e.g. finger waving, shredding paper or rubbing hands on legs) which appears to have no function, can be a result of intense anxiety. In fact, higher levels of anxiety can be associated with higher levels of repetitive behavior.  Very often we first think that this is a behavior caused by autism, when in fact it could be reflective of anxiety. Why is this important? We must look beyond the behavior to the cause if we’re going to be able to help the child. Anxiety in children with autism must be evaluated before it can be treated.

Autism Speaks, a trusted resource in the autism community, is investigating both the prevalence of anxiety in autism as well as what treatments are most effective. Preliminary results have indicated adolescents with autism may be particularly prone to anxiety disorders while younger children on the spectrum may not differ at all from the general population. Other studies have demonstrated that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be particularly helpful for high functioning children with autism. 

Anxiety may underlie some of a child’s difficulties, so if you notice any symptoms, talk to your doctors, therapists and/or school team. Together you can plan a course of treatment best suited for your child.  Looking past the labels your child has been assigned; looking past the anxiety and the autism, you will see that he/she is just a child with certain limitations. 

Below are links for a quick reference to begin:

Stress Free Kids

Autism Speaks

 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

Helping Children with ASD Cope with Fear, Anxiety and Worries

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3 Responses to Addressing Anxiety and ASD

  1. Cyn says:

    Your post had great timing as we are dealing with some stuff at school that seems to us as parents that our son is having issues with anxiety that is being misinterpreted by his classroom teacher.

    I particularly liked this part:

    ” Very often we first think that this is a behavior caused by autism, when in fact it could be reflective of anxiety. Why is this important? We must look beyond the behavior to the cause if we’re going to be able to help the child. Anxiety in children with autism must be evaluated before it can be treated.”

    We are trying to get the classroom teacher to start collecting data on an ABC chart so that we can get a better picture of what is exactly happening that is triggering certain behaviours. Is it sensory integration? Is it anxiety or both? Is it attention seeking?

    Thank you again for this post and we will definitely be bringing this up at our child’s next team meeting.

    • Thanks for keeping up on the blog. I’m please that the anxiety blog has the potential to be helpful to you working with your school team. That’s exactly why I started blogging. I’d be interested in your follow up after the school meeting. Hope all goes well.

      • Cyn says:

        We had an IEP meeting and there are supports in place (visuals, sensory diet, communication book, EA) but we need to have a meeting now with school board folks to try and get more SLP and OT help. We are waiting for a date with the higher ups because we can really tell that the time is NOW to help our son move forward. “He” is driving everything with the private SLP, OT and social skills group so we are feel like we are pushing the school and board to “catch up” to him. I can’t imagine how frustrating and stressful this must be for him.

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