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Children with autism often experience anxiety, which can magnify symptoms like sensory sensitivity, social awkwardness, and repetitive behaviors. Often, kids diagnosed with co-occurring anxiety and autism have trouble understanding their emotions and relating to others. Without proper coping skills, they may avoid situations that make them feel anxious or withdraw from social interactions.

Learn more about the connection between autism and anxiety and how you can help your child manage symptoms.

The Connection Between Autism and Anxiety

According to one study, up to 40% of children with autism also have anxiety disorder. The reasons for this vary, though symptoms of both conditions can overlap, such as obsessions, compulsions, or specific phobias. Anxiety's leading characteristics include persistent and uncontrollable fear and worry, while autism spectrum disorder causes challenges in communication or limited and repetitive behavior patterns.

Anxiety can exacerbate autism symptoms and vice versa. Here's what anxiety and autism can look like in children diagnosed with both conditions.

  • Repetitive behavior: You might notice your child displaying more stimming behaviors to calm their anxiety, including body rocking, hand-flapping, and other self-soothing strategies.
  • Rigidity of routine and rituals: People with autism prefer to stick with specific habits and patterns. Deviation from these routines can induce fear of uncertainty. When attempting to manage their anxiety, children with co-occurring autism and anxiety might cling more tightly to routine.
  • Limited social interactions: Many children with autism struggle with social interactions and interpreting others' behavior. They may have communication difficulties, and anxiety could cause them to stay away from social situations.
  • Enhanced sensory sensitivity: Kids with autism and anxiety may be sensitive to stimuli like specific noises, bright lights, or food textures. They may try to avoid these stimuli so they do not get overwhelmed.

Symptom overlap can make it more challenging to identify anxiety disorders in children with autism. As a result, it's essential to consult with professionals who can properly diagnose your child and provide practical, individualized treatment for their needs.

How to Calm Anxiety in Kids With Autism

If you are a parent or caregiver of a child with autism, you are likely searching for ways to help your child manage their anxiety symptoms. Fortunately, there are several strategies and activities to reduce anxiety in children with autism. By learning their triggers, practicing calming techniques and developing coping skills, your child can manage their symptoms and live a more comfortable, fulfilling life.

1. Learn Their Triggers

The first step toward overcoming your child's anxiety symptoms is to learn their triggers. As mentioned, social interactions, interruptions in routine and sensory stimuli can all be overwhelming in children with autism. Note the specific situations where your child's anxiety flares up and search for ways to alleviate their symptoms. Signs of distress can be nonverbal signals that your child is becoming anxious or overstimulated and needs help to regulate their emotions.

Since kids with autism may struggle to interpret their emotions, it's also crucial to help your child recognize and describe their anxiety symptoms. Speech therapy can also help them build communication skills and express their needs effectively.

2. Practice Calming Techniques

Children with anxiety often experience overpowering internal sensations of tension, including a racing heart, sweating, headaches and stomachaches. When anxiety strikes, they may turn to poor coping techniques like repetitive self-harm behavior or outbursts. If your child can, have them try healthier self-soothing techniques to alleviate these symptoms, such as:

  • Slowly counting to 10
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

You might also try distractions like reading a favorite book or using fidget toys to alleviate anxiety. These activities can redirect potentially harmful behaviors. Every child is different, so you'll want to explore other calming techniques to find a few that work best for your kid. That way, they can try these out the moment anxiety strikes.

3. Create a Sensory Toolbox

Sensory coping skills can be helpful in situations where overload leads to anxiety. For instance, create a safe space for your child to regroup or calm down. Spending time in a calm, tranquil area can limit your child's sensory exposure.

Also, schedule quiet time for your child before big events or social activities that you anticipate could cause sensory overload. That way, they can have proactive downtime before the day's anxiety becomes too much.

4. Try New Forms of Communication

Visual activities, sequence cards and social stories are all helpful ways to communicate plans and expectations to your child. After all, predictability and a sense of control can help reduce anxiety. For example, use daily check-off lists to walk them through your plans. At the same time, a social story can walk your child through an event from beginning to end, helping them imagine what will happen. A social narrative might be as simple as a story about going to a grocery store while modeling interactions that will likely occur.

5. Explore Different Therapies

You can explore various therapies with your child to help them manage anxiety. While you can practice techniques learned in therapy at home, getting professional guidance is ideal to ensure the best effectiveness. Strategies that can help children with autism and anxiety include the following.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: CBT is an evidence-based therapy that can help people with severe anxiety and autistic children with some verbal abilities. The first step is identifying the root of your child's anxiety, such as separation anxiety, social issues or sensory stimuli. After discovering their triggers, therapists can help your child develop coping skills to reduce fear and worries.
  • Exposure therapy: Through gradual exposure to the things that make your child anxious, they can face their fears safely and effectively. For instance, a child with separation anxiety might start therapy by spending one minute in a room away from their parents. When their parents reappear, it affirms to the child they are safe. Over time, they can spend more time away from their parents without experiencing severe anxiety.
  • Sensory integration therapy: Occupational therapy for sensory processing can address your child's specific sensitivity and help them process their reactions better. Over time, they can reduce repetitive or harmful behaviors when met with sensory overload.

As you try these therapies, it's crucial to record and reflect on the positives so you have a plan to tackle anxiety-inducing situations in the future. Celebrate successes and encourage your child to be brave. Seek professional therapists who can develop a customized plan and ensure your child gets the best treatment possible.

Improve Your Child's Quality of Life With Premier Pediatric Therapy

An anxiety diagnosis can present further complications for children with autism. Fortunately, many strategies for managing anxiety can help your child alleviate their worries and live a more comfortable life. Premier Pediatric Therapy offers various services to help children with autism flourish, including occupational, speech, physical, and ABA therapy.

Our qualified and compassionate team will build a program that addresses your child's unique needs and help them develop the skills they need to succeed in life. To get started, request an appointment with us today.


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