Tuesday, May 31, 2016


May is Mental Health Month! It is very important to consider the mental health of individuals on the autism spectrum. For this reason, I decided to learn about anxiety as it relates to the mental health of individuals with autism.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome
Just as neurotypical people have anxiety disorders, some children and adults with autism have anxiety disorders as well

Anxiety disorder can present as social phobia, separation anxiety, panic attacks, excessive worry/rumination, obsessive compulsive disorder or a phobia such as extreme fear of spiders or loud noise etc.

Symptoms may include difficulty concentrating, thinking constantly about the worst outcome, difficulty sleeping and becoming preoccupied with or obsessive about one subject or object. Physical symptoms may include excessive thirst, stomach upsets, pounding heart, headaches and dizziness.

They say about 30 percent of people living with autism have anxiety disorders. Unlike regular people, because of limitations in communication, people with autism may not be able to say that they have anxiety disorders; some may not identify the feelings as anxiety, but there are ways to recognize anxiety in people with autism, whether they can say it or not.

As a parent, you are expected to know your child well, so you should notice if there’s an increase in the expression of challenging behaviours. There may be an increase in meltdowns or tantrums; ritualistic behaviours like arranging toys in a line; stimming behaviours such as flapping, spinning, rocking; insist on routine and sameness; preferring to stay alone more than before; self-injury behaviour such as hand biting, head banging, or pinching. Some individuals with autism may become more aggressive because of anxiety disorder. Another possible symptom of anxiety disorder may be loss of sleep; so if your child is losing sleep for reasons you cannot explain, it may be a symptom of anxiety disorder.

Anxiety in people with autism is treated the way as in regular people. Although medications can be given for anxiety, the more acceptable form of treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). If you as a parent suspect that your child may have anxiety disorder, you need to speak to a psychiatrist. Do not feel embarrassed to see a psychiatrist about your child’s needs, you are getting the help that is needed.

Alongside whatever treatment the psychiatrist may give to the child for anxiety, parents need to recognize that they have a role to play in helping their child overcome the fears and other effects of anxiety. Encourage your child to be brave and overcome his/her fears by rewarding any effort at being brave, so when the child does something he/she is afraid of, reward that child and don’t just ignore it, or acknowledge it as “one of those things”. It is also important to discuss the fears of the child; you can develop social stories to teach the child how to address the fear. As a parent, you know your child more than anybody else, it will therefore be easier for you to recognize the things or situations that trigger anxiety in your child. Recognizing these triggers will help you work with your child to address anxiety.

Like every symptom or comorbidity you deal with in your child with autism, dealing with anxiety will require patience and consistence. Do not give up; you need to be strong because your child depends on your strength. Work with the psychiatrist, and know that with your support it will only get better.

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