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Dealing with Anxiety in Autistic Children

November 15, 2019

Many children can become anxious when faced with challenging situations, such as school or family issues. But for children with autism, these issues can often become overwhelming, leading to intense anxiety.

“If a child on the spectrum is having challenging behavior, very often anxiety is the root of that,” says clinical psychologist Christopher Lynch, PhD, director of pediatric behavioral medicine for Goryeb Children’s Hospital and author of Anxiety Management for Kids on the Autism Spectrum: Your Guide to Preventing Meltdowns and Unlocking Potential.

Autism is a developmental disability but impacts each child in a unique way, says Dr. Lynch. “Children with autism are often referred to as being ‘on the spectrum’ because it is a collection of developmental concerns that occur together in varying degrees.”

Five Factors That Increase Anxiety

Dr. Lynch says there are five factors that can increase anxiety in children with autism, but there are things parents can do to help ease that anxiety. Cognitive rigidity refers to thinking in a very detail-oriented way. “It is a great strength but can make it difficult when things change. You can prepare your child for change by minimizing unexpected changes and letting them know when a transition is coming up.”

Social Situations & Sensory Sensitivities

Another aspect that often occurs in social situations is sensory sensitivities. “They are more sensitive to noises or tactile experiences like being touched unexpectedly or being in crowds,” says Dr. Lynch. To reduce anxiety, Dr. Lynch advises parents to temporarily remove the child from that situation or provide him or her with headphones to block noise.

Language processing is another area where children with autism may become anxious from their inability to process, either by not understanding what someone is saying or by being unable to express themselves through language. “Someone using a lot of language like ‘come on, get ready to go to school; go put on your socks and shoes; we’re going to be late’ can overwhelm their language processing capacity,” says Dr. Lynch.

Task frustration can cause children to struggle with tying shoes or using scissors when younger and with their ability to write when older. Challenges can also occur in social situations where children with autism do not understand turns of phrase.

“Make sure you’re supporting them in social situations,” says Dr. Lynch. “Have the child learn and practice stress and anxiety management techniques because no matter how much we support our kids, we’re never going to eliminate anxiety. But we can help build their resilience and problem-solving ability.”

If you have concerns about your child’s mental health or development, speak to your pediatrician.

Dr. Lynch is part of Atlantic Medical Group, a multispecialty network of health care providers.