Do Autism and Anxiety Go Hand in Hand


Perhaps a comprehensive approach to diagnosis has revealed an increased precedence of autistic spectrum disorders in children. According to the estimates every one in 68 children is afflicted with varying degrees of autism that may be exhibited as severe speech defects and social deficits. Autism has been understood as a broad spectrum wherein the severity of the intellectual disability ranges from mild to moderate or even extreme. Some individuals may even exhibit higher or even superior intellectual abilities.

Autistic individuals on the spectrum tend to have a rigid thinking, as they engage in repetitive behavior and find it particularly tough to process the verbal and non-verbal cues. The sensory integration challenges experienced by an autistic individual is further made complicated by the anxiety experienced by them as they struggle with the task of processing information coming at them at a seemingly rapid rate.

Autistic individuals are programmed to follow a schedule as they find comfort in routines to get through their daily tasks. Any disruption in their daily routine is bound to upset them deep inside as they lose the sense of control and direction to experience an anxiety induced panic attack. Classrooms, restaurants, grocery stores and parks are places that seem to be loud and bright, with people busy multi-tasking and working in co-ordination which can overwhelm an autistic individual and induce anxiety.

How to bring down anxiety levels in autistic individuals

Young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are prone to specific anxiety disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, specific phobias and panic disorder that greatly affects their ability to function normally. These debilitating disorders in autistic individuals are often related to extreme anxiety levels that make everyday lives a living challenge for them. The low cognitive functioning in autistic individuals becomes more pronounced as they enter their adolescent years making the anxiety induced intellectual impairment more pronounced.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has proven to be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders as it focuses on teaching modes of relaxation based on graded exposure to anxiety inducing situations. It effectively models a thinking plan that steers clear of the irrational thinking pattern that induces stress and anxiety. CBT tends to retrain the basic thinking pattern of an individual to re-conceptualize their information processing skills. Although CBT focuses more on verbal and the abstract, it can be tailored for autistic individuals by incorporating visual imagery, child specific interests and getting parents and near ones to participate in the process.

Role of the parents and near ones

A parent or a loved one can play an instrumental role in helping an autistic child overcome his or her anxiety issues. Parents of autistic individuals must be prepared to multi-task as a patient therapist, friend and coach to help them overcome their fears and worries on a daily basis. A parent must encourage brave behavior in an autistic child by rewarding the same and showing the way by becoming a role model the child can emulate.

An awareness of the anxiety triggers like insomnia, change in routine and social exposure can help a parent plan ideas to gradually reduce the anxiety levels through controlled exposure, simulation and imagery. An anxiety plan worked out around the triggers can help the parents devise strategies to counter panic attacks with solutions that may have worked in the past. Autistic individuals are unable to communicate their discomfort as they find confrontations extremely difficult. A simple technique of introducing a card system wherein an autistic individual can convey his emotion through cards can be an effective way in tackling anxiety issues.

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