When you first think of anxiety you may think of it as a relatively common disorder that many adults face on a regular basis.  But, did you know that people on the autism spectrum show significantly higher rates of anxiety disorders than people who are not on the spectrum?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder often characterized by having difficulties with social interaction and communication. Although anxiety is not considered to be a core feature of ASD 40% of young people with ASD also have some form of anxiety disorder.  

However, there may be some explanation to this, difficulty with social skills has been linked to a higher risk for anxiety.  

Interlink of Social Skills, Autism, and Anxiety

For students with high functioning anxiety, they may perform very well academically but struggle behind the scenes in the social aspect of school.  When someone struggles to socialize and connect with others, places with lots of people such as school may be a source of anxiety.   

Socializing may be a form of stress for your child with ASD, which is where autism and anxiety connect.  If your child struggles to read other people or situations well, it can cause anxiety to form.   

Children and teens with autism often prefer to keep to themselves and have difficulties expressing their emotions.  This means if they are having a difficult time making friends and forming connections at school, they may not open up to you about it unless asked.  

In a 2017 study researchers found that difficulty with social skills is a risk factor for anxiety, in particular social anxiety, but anxiety in itself does not indicate social problems.  This means building social skills is a major piece in treatment for social anxiety.    

Recognizing Anxiety in ASD

Recognizing anxiety in your child or loved one with ASD may be the first and most important step to getting them the help and support they need.  Treating anxiety in those with ASD is important because it affects the core aspects of ASD, namely repetitive behaviors and social withdrawal.  Anxiety can complicate life for people with autism spectrum disorder, particularly when navigating the social world and beginning to live life independently.

In fact, anxiety left untreated in people with ASD has been linked to other psychological struggles including depression, aggression, and self-injury.  It may be hard for your child to open up about some of the social or anxiety-related issues they have been struggling with, that is why if you suspect your child may be struggling with these issues it may be helpful to approach them about it.  However, if you’re having trouble identifying whether your child may suffer from anxiety or not, here are some signs to look for in individuals with ASD.

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of anxiety may be easier to identify in patients with ASD particular in those who struggle with expressing themselves verbally.  Common physical symptoms of anxiety disorders in individuals with ASD include:

  • Tremors
  • Restlessness
  • Body Aches
  • Sweating
  • Sleep Problems

Other ways anxiety may present itself include:

  • Specific phobias:  A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear about something that poses little to no danger.  This may arise in individuals with ASD due to over responsiveness to sensory stimulation and are caused by fear which may be another expression of anxiety.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder:  Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by unwanted thoughts and consequent compulsive behaviors.  This may be a relevant sign that your child with ASD is suffering from anxiety as compulsions are often performed as a coping mechanism to relieve anxiety. 
  • Social anxiety:  Social anxiety often develops due to communication impairment.  While this is relatively common in individuals with ASD it is important that social anxiety does not lead to total avoidance of social situations.  It is important that your child is eased into social situations and is given the opportunity to regularly practice their social skills in order to relieve this anxiety. 
  • Separation anxiety:  Separation anxiety arises when the individual is separated from strong attachment figures.  This can also be a result of social impairment, and if not given sufficient separation from their attachment figures it can lead the individual to develop or strengthen pre-existing avoidant behaviors.  Gradually becoming accustomed to separation time from attachment figures may help to relieve some of the separation anxiety.    

Self-Esteem and Anxiety

Social isolation and anxiety can lead to a number of self-esteem issues if left unchecked.  Sometimes social anxiety can be a symptom of low self-esteem.  Improving your teens’ self-esteem may help with their confidence in themselves and their ability to socialize with new people.  Here are some tips that can help your child or teen improve their self-esteem.

  • Praise them for doing something well. Noticing the things your child does well and pointing those good things out no matter how big or small can be a simple but effective way to boost self-esteem.  This can help your child to recognize and focus on the things they do well themselves.
  • Ask for their opinion.  Encouraging your child to speak up about their opinions and formulate their own opinions can be extremely beneficial.  This can help your child understand that their opinion is important and valid.   
  • Encourage hobbies and talents.  Hobbies can be a great outlet to cope with stress or anxiety.  Encouraging your child to participate in activities that interest them can help them to explore hidden talents and strengthen their sense of self.
  • Set goals and celebrate achievements.  Helping or encouraging your child to set goals can help improve their motivation, as well as give a sense of personal satisfaction and excitement towards the future.  Also, taking the time to recognize and praise their previous achievements helps to encourage your child to set more goals and make more achievements.  This can be a great tool to improve confidence and self-esteem. 

How Seven Stars Can Help

Seven Stars is a treatment program for adolescents ages 13 to 18 with neurodevelopmental disorders.  Our program combines residential treatment with adventure therapy to create a well-rounded and effective program for teens struggling with emotional or behavioral issues as a result of their neurodevelopmental disorder.  Students participate in daily activities that teach emotional wellness skills such as conflict resolution, problem-solving, social skills, academic skills, self-efficacy, and prosocial behaviors.  At Seven Stars, we aim to provide students with the skills necessary to overcome challenges and live full, productive lives.

For more information about how we help with autism and anxiety at Seven Stars, contact us today at 844-601-1167.