Spotting Signs of Anxiety in Autistic Children

Your child who is on the spectrum has regressed in behaviors. You are worried because you see more stimming, possibly violent behavior or other unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Why is this happening, and could it be signs of stress and anxiety? Yes!

Autistic children often express anxiety and stress like neurotypical individuals, however, they can experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children which typically prompts a regression in behaviors.

Related: Promoting Positive Behavior in our Autism Treatments

Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum

Anxiety is a real and serious problem on the autism spectrum.

Up to nearly 50% of autistic children receive another diagnosis at some point in their development, and the most common co-occurring condition is anxiety.

The catalyst behind this anxiety is worry and fear, with social anxiety as a top driving force.

Severe symptoms from anxiety in autistic children can also stem from and overlap with pronounced phobias, obsessions and compulsions, separation anxiety, and panic disorder.

8 Ways a Child’s Anxiety Shows up as Something Else

Anxiety can leave people feeling helpless, nervous, or depressed, but in children, it can show up looking like something else.

1. Anger

The perception of danger, stress or opposition is enough to trigger the fight or flight response leaving your child angry and without a way to communicate why.

2. Difficulty Sleeping

In children, having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep is one of the hallmark characteristics of anxiety.

3. Defiance

Unable to communicate what is really going on, it is easy to interpret the child’s defiance as a lack of discipline instead of an attempt to control a situation where they feel anxious and helpless.

4. Chandeliering

Chandeliering is when a seemingly calm person suddenly flies off the handle for no reason. They have pushed hurt and anxiety so deep for so long that a seemingly innocent comment or event suddenly sends them straight through the chandelier.

5.Lack of Focus

Children with anxiety are often so caught up in their own thoughts that they do not pay attention to what is going on around them.

6. Avoidance

Children who are trying to avoid a particular person, place, or task often end up experiencing more of whatever it is they are avoiding.

7. Negativity

People with anxiety tend to experience negative thoughts at a much greater intensity than positive ones.

8. Overplanning

Overplanning and defiance go hand in hand in their root cause. Where anxiety can cause some children to try to take back control through defiant behavior, it can cause others to over plan for situations where planning is minimal or unnecessary.

Credit: 8 Ways a Child’s Anxiety Shows up as Something Else, Paul Louden’s Facebook post.

Paul Louden is a public speaker, radio show host, and an autism advocate. “As an adult on the autism spectrum, Paul is able to provide a unique perspective into the autistic mind. Paul truly believes that as a society we need to go beyond awareness to understanding, which will lead to integration and ultimately acceptance.” Learn more about Paul’s work at his website.

Spotting Anxiety in my Autistic Child

Stress and anxiety look different in autistic individuals. An increase in your autistic child’s self-regulation behaviors, or regression to these behaviors, can be indicative that your child is feeling anxious.

These behaviors include:

  • meltdowns or emotional flareups
  • withdrawing from social situations
  • avoiding places or things
  • stimming (including violent stimming that leads to hurting themselves)
  • relying on obsessions and rituals
  • insisting on routines and sameness
  • selective mutism

Finding the Triggers

Finding the triggers that lead your autistic child to feel anxious is the first step in helping them cope.

As the parent, your awareness of your child’s reactions and body language can help you pinpoint what is causing your child to feel anxious and stressed. Autistic individuals can lack awareness of how anxious they are, and how to recover, and it can feel as if there is no end to it.

The resulting physical and prominent reactions that you see may be the only clues that can help determine the cause.

Common triggers that lead to overwhelm and raise stress and anxiety in autistic children include changes in plans, changes in routines, unfamiliar environments, and lack of sleep.

Ways You Can Help

The goal is not to eliminate anxiety but to help your child manage it.

You, the parent guide, can help your child cope through proactive measures:

Encourage brave behaviors. Reward and encourage your child when they face and conquer adversity in their world. This will help your child distinguish between what is realistic or unrealistic fear.

Convey confidence in your child’s ability to handle their fears and challenges.

Model Courageous behaviors. We all face situations in life that can potentially raise our stress levels.

Courage cannot be taught to children, but when we model courageous behaviors, and we communicate how we face our challenges, our children can learn inherently by example.

Practice gradual exposure. Gradual exposure to potential anxiety-provoking trigger points helps your child to process and build coping mechanisms.

This will also help in the development of tolerance, confidence, and will boost intrinsic growth-seeking, “I did it! I want to do this again!”

Find Support in Community

It can be difficult to wade through the feelings that we have as parents of autistic children.

Feelings of defeat, overwhelm, and even guilt can stop us in our tracks from achieving clarity. We need each other in this respect, and you are not alone!

Our online learning community is designed for parents to find connections and support, with access to the most current resources, and an open door to reach out for professional consultation if additional help is needed. `



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