Anxiety is one of the biggest challenges facing individuals
on the autism spectrum.
Parents and therapists and other professionals all want and need to know
how to effectively manage feelings of anxiety in individuals with autism. While anxiety and autism seem to go
hand in hand, there are relatively few resources that help manage these
Anxiety in People with Autism by Dr. Anne Chalfant is
one of those incredible resources that gives both parents and professionals the
tools for handling anxiety and autism.
Anyone who has experienced anxiety knows how
debilitating it can be -- it affects us at work and home, interferes with sleep,
affects our appetite, and can make daily activities a challenge. For individuals with autism, anxiety
often impacts family, social, and academic life, which adds to the additional
difficulties associated with autism.
People with autism often struggle with social
situations -- knowing what to say, how to use eye contact, using appropriate body
language, and initiating conversations.
Thus, individuals with autism are much more likely to be anxious about
their social abilities than their neurotypically developing peers.
Dr. Chalfant also points out in her book that
people with autism also typically utilize “black and white” thinking, meaning
they have trouble accepting exceptions to rules or beliefs or difficulty
integrating new information. Dr.
Chalfant uses the example of a child with autism meeting an aggressive dog;
that child is more likely to think all dogs are aggressive (and have those
feelings of anxiety associate with this situation) than to believe that some
dogs are aggressive and others are friendly.
Emotional regulation is a third cause of anxiety
that Dr. Chalfant notices in individuals with autism. When individuals with autism react to a situation, it is
often with extreme emotions. When
they feel anxiety, individuals with autism really experience that emotion, and
it is often severe. People with
autism also often have more trouble identifying triggers and appropriate
responses to these anxiety-causing situations.
While anxiety and autism are so closely linked,
many parents would admit that the subject of anxiety reducing techniques was
not a pressing issue when their child was first diagnosed. Therapy might include behavioral,
occupational, speech, and other early interventions, but anxiety management is
often overlooked. While it might
be unrealistic to think anxiety will go away completely, it can be greatly
diminished, and individuals with autism can learn techniques for managing
anxiety and utilizing these practices for themselves, which improves overall
One huge trigger for individuals with autism is
change. Changing a routine or
environment can have an extreme impact on a person with autism. Some techniques for decreasing anxiety
(and the tantrums, anger, stress, and other emotions associated with it)
include discussing the change and using social stories. Helping a person with autism really
understand what is happening can help them prepare for the change. Social stories include pictures and
often audio that will explain a scenario, and they give that black and white
depiction of an event that people with autism can understand more easily. The more you introduce to a person with
autism, the more likely they are to accept, understand, and respond
Give plenty of positive reinforcement, especially
when a child with autism is acting calm.
Use their favorite reinforcers, such as a sugar-free animal cracker or a
tap on the shoulder. Use
reassuring pictures, such as photos of loved ones or favorite places. Use weighted blankets or other sensory
items as a calming device.
Dr. Chalfant gives an entire book full of useful
and practical strategies in a language that all readers can understand. Visit Woodbine House and other online retailers to find a copy of this resource.