Individuals with Asperger’s syndrome often present with communication, social, attention and sensory challenges that contribute to anxiety. Asperger’s and anxiety may be addressed with a variety of lifestyle and therapeutic strategies.
Causes of Anxiety
Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is considered a high functioning type of autism and is often accompanied by anxiety. This anxiety may present itself as an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) where the individual engages in repetitive behaviors or thoughts. It is believed that anxiety may be caused by abnormal levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) may be prescribed to improve reabsorption of serotonin and improve mood.
Asperger’s and anxiety are often seen together when students struggle with learning disabilities and/or an attention deficit disorder that make academic demands very stressful. Students with sensory sensitivities may find the school environment over stimulating and threatening which further contributes to their anxiety. Children with sensory processing disorders may have gross and fine motor problems that impact their abilities to succeed in physical education classes and perform paper and pencil tasks. In addition, difficulties reading social cues and communicating impact on an Aspie's abilities to make friends. This can cause social isolation which may further increase anxiety.
Adapting the School and Home Environment
Students with Asperger’s may need to have a special education plan implemented to address their many social, emotional, sensory and learning challenges. This may entail organizational and academic supports, decreased work load or occupational therapy services to address sensory motor deficits.
Students may need to take breaks away from the classroom to spend time in less stimulating environments. In addition, short, frequent movement breaks such as a walk up and down stairs or jumping jacks can help children focus to complete school and homework. Students with Asperger’s and anxiety often benefit from smaller classrooms and a classroom aide who can help them develop social skills and make friends. These students often excel in certain areas such as computer use or art and can gain self-esteem and decrease anxiety when parents and teachers provide opportunities for them to shine.
Exercise and Movement Decrease Anxiety
Parents might help their children with Asperger’s and anxiety by encouraging physical pursuits such as hiking or martial arts that are not competitive and provide socialization. It is well known that physical exercise combats anxiety by releasing “feel good" neurotransmitters and endorphins. Fast movement such as running or cycling provides a special type of sensory stimulation called “vestibular stimulation" that helps the brain to become organized-decreasing sensory sensitivities and promoting coordination.
Occupational therapists can help teachers and parents design what is called a “sensory diet" that includes movement activities designed to improve body awareness and coordination and decrease anxiety. A sensory diet might include activities such as:
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Riding a scooter board down a ramp and around an obstacle course
- Wearing a weighted vest during movement activities
- Rolling up inside a blanket
- Erasing black or white boards
Firm touch and movement decreases anxiety in a fussy baby. Heavy pressure activities can also reduce anxiety in the same way when an individual wears tight spandex garments, wears a heavy backpack or lifts weights in a gym.
Medications Help Decrease Anxiety
Individuals with Asperger’s and anxiety may benefit from a variety of medications. As previously mentioned, anti-anxiety medication changes the way the brain uses the neurotransmitter serotonin. Antidepressant medications such as Zoloft may also help individuals with a co-diagnosis of depression, and medications such as Adderall may be prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder. Medications that improve mood and attention may decrease anxiety as school or work performance improves.
Individuals with Asperger’s may choose to decrease anxiety by changing their lifestyles. This may include:
- Eliminating caffeine
- Meditation and/or Yoga
- A nutritious diet packed with fruits and vegetables
A life coach or special mentor may help the person with Asperger's and anxiety work toward their health and life goals that include reducing anxiety in order to find fulfillment in personal and professional pursuits.
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Myles, B., Cook, K, Miller, N., Rinner, L and Robbins, L.; Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues; Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.; 2000.
Amen, D. and Routh, L.; Healing Anxiety and Depression; New York, NY: Berkeley Books; 2003.