Anxiety is not a feature of the diagnosis of autism. However, many individuals with autism experience anxiety. Children with an autism diagnosis express anxiety in many of the same ways a typically developing child would. A lot of times you will see this nervousness or anxiety as panic or fear.
It can be challenging at times to distinguish the difference between normal behavior and anxiety with an individual who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Some physical things you can look for are: racing hearts, sweating, tummy aches, and muscle tension. If the anxiety becomes more intense you may notice ripping up of items or clothing or repetitive behaviors that differ from normal and seem to serve no purpose.
Self-expression is not always the easiest for individuals with an autism diagnosis. Being able to read the signs and observe the small differences in your child’s behavior may be the only way you are able to notice something is bothering them.
Currently there is no clear-cut way to treat anxiety in children. However, there are some strategies that may help decrease the nervousness your child may be feeling.
- Enlist professional help if it is available to you.
Behavior Therapists, other therapists, and primary care physicians can be great resources when it comes to anxiety. They can help parents and caregivers learn what to look for and how to approach situations to reduce anxiety.
- Approach anxiety-producing situations in a playful way.
Attempting to keep situations you know are anxiety-producing playful can help decrease the nervousness. Try creating a scenario that is like the anxiety-producing situation using a favorite interest or TV character. This helps keep it happy and fun. If you can get your child involved in the mock scenario too helps keep them engaged and listening.
- Work on recognizing emotions.
Emotions and children are hard. The best way to go about learning and recognizing emotions is through play. It is much easier for a child to learn emotions prior to an anxiety-production situation, instead of during the nervous situation or immediately following it.
- Create a “mantra” or soothing phrase.
Having a super simple “mantra” to repeat with your child can help many children who have anxiety. For example, if your child gets nervous around lawn mowers because of their noise, you can say “lawn mowers are lovely.” Hearing the phrase over and over and for some repeating the phrase can be very helpful.
- Repeat the scenario created and add in the “mantra.”
Practice makes perfect. Making the fun scenario with your child’s interests and using the simple phrase you created can help your child work on responses to fearful situations. Creating exposure in lighthearted ways can continue to decrease the nervousness.
- Build on the experience in a slow, safe, and gradual way.
Feared situations should be presented in a gradual way and with reassurance. If you had a fear of spiders, you would not get over that fear by jumping into a tub full of them. Instead, you would slowly expose yourself to the bug to get use to them. The same goes for exposure to a fear for your child. Gradually building upon experiences is the most important in decreasing nervousness.
- Step out into the real world.
Make sure your child is ready before bringing them into real world situations. You may need to use small exposures at first and gradually make gains to the full real-world situation. With the example of the fear of the lawn mower, the gradual exposure could look something like this: videos of lawn mowers, then watching through a window, standing outside at a far distance, then slowly getting closer and closer over time.
The goal to these tips is to get your child comfortable in what may be fearful situations to reduce anxiety. It takes a lot of learning and teaching and can feel tedious to work through. It is also important to note your child may not get to complete fearlessness in anxiety-producing situations, but these strategies can help reduce the nerves.