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Anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorders

The following blog was written by Catherine Bladow, MS-CCC-SLP, BCBA, Clinical Director with Trumpet Behavioral Health.

Catherine Bladow, MS-CCC-SLP, BCBA

Imagine you have just boarded a plane and will land in a foreign country where no one speaks your language and the customs are very different.

You are not sure how you will find where to stay or even how to get there. You might step back and observe what others are doing and copy their actions.

A big difference between your behavior and an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is YOU have the benefit of being able to problem solve and remain somewhat calm until you can determine a solution.

This could be what your child experiences on a daily basis; confusion, rapid heart rate; basically fight or flight.  They might be looking for clues on how to respond, or worse; they don’t look for clues.  They may stumble, try again and may or may not learn from their mistakes.  That makes for a pretty stressful situation.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric condition present during childhood and occur in conjunction with other diagnosis such as attention disorder, mood, conduct and development (Compton et.al 2004). Children with ASDs are at a high risk of developing anxiety.  Recognition of anxiety in this population is not new, however evaluation and treatment has only recently been receiving the attention it deserves.

Many children with ASDs are aware of their differences and want to change them.  This paired with anxiety make their social interactions more challenging.  Individuals with ASDs may further isolate themselves socially for fear of making mistakes.

19268552There are empirically supported treatments of anxiety for typically developing children including pharmacological and psychosocial interventions.  These interventions are being modified and targeted for use with children diagnosed with ASDs.

Some strategies that you can use to help your child deal with anxiety include identifying the symptoms or situations that make him/her anxious.  This will help increase self-awareness for you and your child.  Discuss how their body might feel in these situations and how they can help reduce these feelings.  Develop a hierarchy from the least to most stressful situation.  Begin small and reward your child for any effort.  Practice coping strategies when your child is not feeling anxious.

Remember the old saying sink or swim?  We want your child to swim, so identify strategies that will help them remain calm and reduce anxiety.  Work together with your child’s team to develop a consistent plan.  Look for social skill groups in your community or individuals who provide cognitive behavior therapy.   The good news is there is emerging evidence that anxiety can be effectively managed.