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People with Autism: Stress and Anxiety


  • Published: 2014-03-15 (Revised/Updated 2017-06-28) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Article examines stress, anxiety, and panic attacks often experienced by children, as well as adults, with autism spectrum disorders.

The incredible increase in the numbers of people who experience forms of autism is not clearly understood at this time. Conservative estimates point to a 300% increase. Some of the increase may be due to improved diagnosis. Autism runs in families and seems to have a genetic component. Environmental stressors such as increased exposure to hormones and pesticides are also pointed to. Yet there is little certainty in the scientific community about what is really going on.

Children and people with mild autism at times seem to others as self-contained and aloof. Others might assume that people with autism are fairly calm, cool and collected. The truth may be that they are incorrect.

People with autism may experience increased levels of stress and anxiety due to interpersonal isolation. They feel different from others and worry that they might be misunderstood or disliked. Their perceptions might lead them to avoid others or withdraw. Lack of contact with others can lead to increased awkwardness and a lack of opportunities to practice social interactions.

People with autism frequently report hypersensitivity to loud noises, lights, touch, or other forms of sensations. When in situations that involve these areas of oversensitivity, they might also experience periods of discomfort and stress. Stress may result in avoidance of places where over-stimulation can happen.

In addition, people with autism might have difficulties with understanding the perspectives of others. They may misinterpret communications and interpersonal cues that are subtle. Misunderstandings can lead to increased worry, anxiety and trouble with relationships. Rejection, withdrawal, or avoidance are natural reactions. For a person with autism, anxiety arises in a process somewhat like this:

  1. Something is feared resulting in distress
  2. Avoidance brings temporary relief from feelings of distress and feels good
  3. The good feeling is rewarding and results in more avoidance
  4. The next time fear is experienced there is a strong desire for avoidance
  5. Fear increases and avoidance is the natural pathway

People with autism and anxiety can learn to slowly become exposed to what it is they fear, just like people with generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or panic disorder. Whether adult or child, brilliant or cognitively impaired, people with autism usually experience anxiety due to a mix of social demands and neurological issues. Treatment might include implementing a sensory diet, modified work expectations, medication, and behavioral therapies.

People with Autism and Sensory Diets

A sensory diet involves providing the type of activities that meet a person's sensory needs throughout their day. Children with autism many times crave fast movement experiences such as swinging or deep pressure activities like wrestling or crashing into piles of pillows. Incorporating these types of sensory activities into their day helps to decrease levels of anxiety in children with autism.

In addition, types of aerobic exercise such as jumping jacks or jogging release chemicals called, 'endorphins,' that decrease the levels of anxiety children with autism experience. Adults with autism can create their own sensory diets with their favorite aerobic sports, weight lifting, or heavy muscle tasks such as stacking wood, shoveling snow, or hoeing a garden.

People with autism face numerous challenges. The challenges they face include ones related to:

People with autism might develop depression, or an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as generalized anxiety. Antidepressant medications may be helpful to treat depression, which in turn helps to reduce stress and anxiety. Anti-anxiety medications prescribed by a doctor may help to reduce symptoms of OCD and improve the person's mood. A number of people with autism also find that Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) medications can help to reduce anxiety they experience.

People with Autism and Modification of Work Expectations

People with autism often times excel in areas where they can maintain incredible focus. On the other hand, a number of people with autism struggle when it becomes necessary to multi-task. Sadly, the middle school years are often the most stressful ones for children who struggle with transitions between several class topics that require high degrees of organization and planning. Special education plans might need to reduce anxiety levels with organization assistance, reducing workloads, extending deadlines and other types of modifications.

Adults with autism might decrease the anxiety they experience by seeking out work situations that enable them to excel in their particular area of expertise and by avoiding jobs that demand multi-tasking. Professional life coaches or therapists may also help adults with autism to decrease the anxiety they experience by role playing situations where the person needs to self-advocate.

Behavioral Therapies and People with Autism

A number of behavioral therapies are available to assist people with autism to overcome anxiety and accompanying conditions such as alcoholism, eating disorders, or depression. Children with autism who have severe cognitive and language delays many times receive what is called, 'Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA),' where they are rewarded for positive behaviors such as following directions or answering questions correctly. Inability to communicate when a person feels pain or is hungry is highly stressful and therapies that promote communication help to decrease the anxiety they feel. High functioning adolescents and adults might also benefit from behavioral therapies that help them to be more assertive, to relax, and to feel more positive about themselves. Techniques commonly include role modeling and positive reinforcement.

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