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How to Deal with Anxiety in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders

written by: Sharon Dominica • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 11/29/2010

Want to know more about dealing with anxiety in autistic children and adolescents? This article outlines the symptoms and treatments for anxiety in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.

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    Anxiety is one of the common autism co- morbid illnesses. It is more prevalent in autistic children and adolescents than their adult peers. However, the approach to anxiety in autism is slightly different from the way anxiety is usually approached in clients. This is because people with autism are different in many ways and the causes and symptoms of anxiety are different. This article talks about the various causes and manifestations of anxiety in this age group, and outlines some ideas to help in dealing with anxiety in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.

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    Causes of Anxiety in Autism:

    The most common cause of anxiety is difficulties in social functioning. People with autism struggle with social skills and relationships, and are sometimes overwhelmed by social demands. This can cause social anxiety.

    Another cause of anxiety can be sensory defensiveness and other environmental factors. Some stimuli in the environment can cause anxiety in children and adolescents with autism. These can include bright lights and background noises.

    Children and adolescents with autism also have difficulties when there is a change in schedule, or they are in a new environment. Other sudden anxiety causes can be a traumatic experience, or inability to cope with the demands at school. Lack of communication skills may also lead to anxiety.

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    Manifestations of Anxiety in Autism

    Anxiety manifests in different ways in children and adolescents with autism. It may appear as an increase in repetitive behavior or narrowed interests for example. It may also show as social withdrawal as the child avoids people who they are usually comfortable with. Sometimes, the child or adolescent may not be willing to talk about the anxiety or admit to it when asked about it.

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    Treatments for Anxiety in Autism

    Treatment for anxiety in autism can be categorized into three main approaches:

    Pharmacological:

    There are some medications that are proven to be effective in decreasing anxiety in autism such selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Consultation with a doctor and prescription of the right medication can help to decrease anxiety levels. For many children, behaviour therapy alone is not effective and pharmacological interventions may be essential.

    Psychotherapy:

    This type of therapy teaches skills and techniques to reduce anxiety. In some cases, the treatment may be modified to include some applied behavior analysis approaches.

    Modification of the environment may help some children. Children with autism may be hypersensitive to some sensory stimulation like lights, background noises or textures. Modifying the environment can help them to be more comfortable, and decrease their anxiety levels.

    A structured routine is said to help children with autism work more efficiently, and feel less anxious. Children with autism get more anxious in crowds and new environments, thus preparing them well in advance can help keep anxiety levels low.

    Children and adolescents who have anxiety in social situations may benefit from social skills training. However social skills training must also address social anxiety issues that the clients might be facing in addition to the teaching of social skills.

    Alternative treatments:

    This is basically a machine which gives the client the feeling of a long, deep hug. This has been found to be effective with children with autism who have anxiety symptoms.

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    References:

    Bellini, D. S. (2004). Living in Fear: Anxiety in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders . Retrieved from Indiana Resource Centre for Autism: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/?pageId=481

    Susan W. White, D. O. (2009). Anxiety in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Clinical Psychology Review , 216-229 .