Anxiety Treatment Center for Autism Spectrum Disorder
It is estimated that up to 80% of teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder struggle with some degree of anxiety. Despite the prevalence of anxiety disorders among teens on the spectrum, most treatment approaches tend to focus on either anxiety or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Residential treatment centers for teens with ASD understand the unique intersection and overlap of these struggles and use positive reinforcement to empower teens to overcome their anxiety and insecurity.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
Table of Contents
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder are especially prone to develop anxiety due to sensory sensitivity, rigid processing, difficulties in perspective taking, and trouble connecting with others. Due to sensory sensitivity, they are often more in tune with physical manifestations of anxiety, such as a racing pulse, shakiness, sweating, restlessness, muscle tension, nausea, and chest tightness. This suggests they may be more likely to report physical symptoms of anxiety, even if they have trouble connecting the dots about when and why those symptoms are triggered. Teens on the autism spectrum are also more likely to lack confidence related to worrying about what other people might think of them and not understanding communication difficulties with others.
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What are the Causes of Anxiety in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
A common feature of anxiety in autistic teens is fear of transitions, new environments, new people, and disruptions in routine, which contributes to experiencing situational anxiety. Leaving one’s comfort zone induces worrying thoughts, but autistic teenagers have a tendency to go into fight or flight mode when situations become unfamiliar or feel unsafe. As a result, they may have more difficulty adapting at home and in school, making friends and joining in social activities, and breaking their usual routines to try something new. Autistic teens are more likely to blame anxiety on situations than understand the themes of the situation that affect their responses.
Some situations that may increase anxiety in teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder may include:
- Social interactions
- Difficulty with self-expression, both verbal and nonverbal
- Difficulty understanding someone else’s perspective
- Sensory overload
- Not understanding academic curriculum
- Restricting self-stimulating behaviors or rituals
- Trying new foods, activities, or places
How Does Social Anxiety Affect Social Skills in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
The main difference between autism and social anxiety is that teens with autism may develop social anxiety as a result of difficulties with social interactions, but it is not the root cause of their social struggles. Instead, their behavior in social situations is impaired because of trouble reading and understanding social and emotional cues.
While people with social anxiety may be more likely to withdraw in social situations, teens on the spectrum may be more likely to overexert themselves in social situations even when they are being socially awkward. People with social anxiety are more likely to be overly sensitive to other people’s body language and facial expressions, while teens on the spectrum are more likely to be unaware of other people’s cues and overly sensitive to the way their own body feels in these scenarios.
While there is a difference between social anxiety disorder and social skills deficits common in teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder, there is also significant overlap. Many teens on the spectrum develop social anxiety due to experiences of rejection or being overstimulated by social situations, like large groups of people.
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How Does Seven Stars Support Teens with Anxiety Disorders?
Seven Stars is a residential treatment center for teens of all genders ages 13-17 that addresses a variety of mental health struggles experienced by teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder, including anxiety. Our intention is to help each student build, block by block, from a place of fear to a place of accomplishment. The overriding principle of “focusing on the positives” helps in creating this foundation for success and our supportive staff and like-minded peers help build on this foundation.
As a residential treatment program, we offer structured activities and therapy groups that help teens with anxiety disorders get into a routine, which minimizes their fears about being out of control. On campus, our goals are to provide a structured, home-like environment blending individual therapy, academics, and student life. Every week, we offer three days of off-campus experiential learning activities that give teens the opportunity to practice the skills that they’ve learned through outdoor adventure programs, community service, equine therapy, educational field trips, and community-based activities. These adventures are often the best ways for us to assess the student’s social growth, as well.
Helping our students overcome anxiety is based on more than just soft-skills. Our therapeutic approach includes psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and medication evaluations, depending on the need.
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