Many parents recognize that anxiety can be a regular aspect of the human experience, a part of life everyone encounters at one time or another. Children can experience anxiety in many ways. At ABA Centers of America, healthy anxiety has led children to take chances, motivating them to change, practice imitation, and explore their environment. So, while anxiety can sometimes feel uncomfortable, it can also be helpful.
When anxiety acts as a means of protecting and alerting us, it is valuable. However, when autism and anxiety coexist in a child, the pressure can be challenging to address. Without established experts and treatment plans addressing essential needs, life with autism and anxiety can be unmanageable for the affected family unit.
Depending on the degree of autism and anxiety, the behaviors exhibited, and the impairment experienced, many features of a child’s life can be affected. This combination can negatively impact critical abilities like fostering meaningful interactions or community participation. During these challenging times, the consequences of autism and anxiety become apparent.
In many cases, when autism and anxiety occur together, families, providers, and friends can find themselves feeling overwhelmed. This blog post evaluating autism and anxiety will explore the unique challenges families and children experience while managing their stress with an autism diagnosis. ABA Centers of America has also included tips and resources to help anyone with these complex disorders.
By the end of this post, concerned parents will better understand how best to care for their child experiencing autism and anxiety. Additionally, we hope families explore ABA therapy as a potential option for supporting their children on the spectrum experiencing these complex issues.
What Is the Relationship between Autism and Anxiety?
Understanding the relationship between autism and anxiety can be complicated for a parent or caregiver, but it doesn’t have to be. Recent research reveals that individuals on the spectrum often experience stress at much higher levels than the general population. Additionally, various triggers can exacerbate anxiety in individuals diagnosed with autism.
When a particular stimulus triggers a neurodivergent child, it can increase their anxiety. This increase may cause the individual to exhibit behaviors typical to any individual experiencing anxiety like:
- Sleep difficulties
- Social withdrawal
- Physical discomfort (e.g., headaches, muscle aches, or stomach issues)
- Various disruptive behaviors (e.g., yelling, screaming, crying, and eloping)
- Learning challenges
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating.
A child experiencing autism and anxiety may additionally demonstrate symptoms like:
- Dysregulated emotions
- Difficulty transitioning between activities
- Extreme rigidity
- Distress around change
- Severe behavioral outbursts or meltdowns
- Skill regression
- Pervasive questions and conversation
- Compulsive physical behaviors (flapping, spitting, scratching, picking, or rocking, to name a few)
The positive news is that individuals with autism and anxiety can learn to manage their experiences by identifying stress, recognizing what causes it, and understanding how to cope. Children can often achieve this through ABA therapy.
What Triggers a Child with Autism and Anxiety?
Children with autism can experience anxiety for many reasons. While the events that trigger these feelings may differ between children, some common patterns and triggers exist. These include:
- Lack of predictability
- Difficult transitions
- Relationship changes (divorce, marriages, new siblings)
- New pressure, demands, or expectations
- Academic stress
- Changes in the environment (e.g., new house, new class, new food)
- Routine modifications
- Social needs or complicated interactions
- Sensory overload
As previously mentioned, it’s normal for anyone, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, to experience anxiety occasionally. However, life can become challenging when this fear persists. An individual who frequently exhibits disruptive and intrusive behavior may struggle to achieve independence or perform everyday functions.
Why Are Individuals with Autism More Prone to Anxiety?
Some individuals with autism are more prone to anxiety because of various sensory processing issues. These include challenges in understanding social cues, tone, facial expressions, and heightened sensory inputs.
Individuals on the spectrum may be overwhelmed by stimuli that seem completely normal to others, like the sound of a blender or a dog barking in the distance. Furthermore, having autism can lead to challenges with interaction and communication, further increasing the feeling of separation and disconnect from others and anxiety levels.
How Can Children with Autism Learn to Process and Understand Their Anxiety?
Raising a neurodivergent child can be a challenging experience, especially when it comes to helping them comprehend and navigate feelings of anxiety. The key to helping children with autism understand their fear and stress is creating trust and opening the dialogue.
This type of environment allows them to express themselves without feeling judged. This atmosphere will enable the child to voice their concerns, self-soothe, and connect over vulnerability. Additionally, it helps them develop appropriate coping mechanisms for managing their anxiety.
It’s important to encourage children on the spectrum to remain curious and open about the feelings they are experiencing. Identifying the bodily sensations associated with stress and fear can help them stay calmer. These include recognizing physical features like:
- Gut/stomach sensations
- Racing heartbeat
- Urges to rock, flap, or sway (to name a few possible physical manifestations)
Helping your child understand and identify their anxiety can help them cope better with the powerful experience and improve communication for future events!
What Are Some Strategies for Helping a Child Manage Autism and Anxiety?
There are many ways parents and caregivers can help manage autism and anxiety.
- Promote feeling words and direct the conversation to what the child is experiencing.
- Use visual supports like charts and pictures to promote the flow of dialogue!
- Set expectations before attending events or beginning new activities.
- Incorporate supportive daily practices like deep breathing, visualization, and mindfulness.
- Purchase gadgets that help with sensory overload.
- Discuss your child’s sensory needs.
When Does Anxiety Become Dangerous?
If anxiety is left unaddressed, it can sometimes become extreme or prolonged, leading to dangerous repercussions. If left undiagnosed, stress can be a powerful barrier to skill acquisition, development, learning, social functioning, and life experience. As caregivers and providers, it is vital to recognize when anxiety is debilitating. In this case, intervention and specialized support may be necessary.
In some cases, untreated anxiety in children with autism can lead to:
- Panic attacks
- Gastrointestinal pain and disorders
- Increased problem behavior
- In severe cases, self-harm
How Can Parents of Children Facing Autism and Anxiety Find Support?
As an autism parent, it is critical you feel supported. If your child on the spectrum additionally suffers from anxiety, seeking support is even more critical. Parents often feel the significant impact of their child’s struggles. Stress-related circumstances can lead parents to suffer socially, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. As a parent, it’s essential to seek supportive services like:
- Stress and anxiety workshops for parents
- Books, apps, and resources related to anxiety reduction strategies and stress management
- Parent training (often required as a component of ABA treatment)
- Social interaction and exchanges with other parents experiencing similar circumstances.
- Support groups
- Online forums
How Can ABA Therapy Help Children with Autism and Anxiety?
For families impacted by the challenges of autism and anxiety, it’s natural to feel frustrated and even hopeless at times. However, ABA therapy is a science-based approach that can transform your child’s and your family’s life. In many cases, over time, ABA therapy leads to meaningful and long-lasting growth for individuals on the spectrum.
Neurodivergent children who experience anxiety can work with compassionate ABA experts like Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs). These experts can help them to derive a sense of safety navigating the world and the fear they experience daily. Dedicated BCBAs and RBTs will provide your child and family with the guidance they need to promote independent thinking and greater participation in life!
ABA Centers of America Understands Autism and Anxiety
ABA Centers of America understands that anxiety can be an overwhelming experience for children with autism, especially when left undetected and untreated. Understanding the relationship between autism and anxiety, including triggers, is critical to treating the debilitating experience. We encourage families to seek professional help for their child experiencing anxiety and autism before the situation worsens or becomes dangerous.
ABA Centers of America prides itself on employing the best ABA specialists in the industry. Our BCBAs and RBTS understand autism and anxiety and how the conditions can intermix! From there, using data and our deep understanding of neurodivergent behavior, we address core issues. We personalize treatment plans for each client we serve and include details like their experiences with anxiety and behavioral history.
Through an empathetic and intelligent approach, our experts will guide parents through the supportive activities and strategies that empower their children with autism and anxiety to set goals and achieve them. By including ABA therapy in your children’s life, they can gain the skills and confidence to feel gratified and fulfill their dreams.
Want to learn more about ABA Centers of America and our innovative approach to managing the complexities of autism spectrum disorder? Call 844-923-4222 or visit us here today.