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Parent tips for managing anxiety in autistic children

Managing autism anxiety: Tips for parents

Updated: August 11, 2023 · 3 Minute Read

Fionna Lane

Written by:

Fionna Lane

Highlights

  • Parents with an anxiety disorder may have children who are prone to anxiety.
  • Similar approaches for speaking and non-speaking people can be used to manage anxiety, provided an easy and effective method of communication has been established.
  • While avoiding triggers can reduce anxiety in the short term, avoidance can make anxiety worse over time.

Managing autism anxiety: Tips for parents

20% of autistic adults have an anxiety disorder, compared with less than 9% of neurotypical adults.¹ In addition, although it’s not the only factor, there is a genetic component to anxiety, so parents with an anxiety disorder may have children who are prone to anxiety.² I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in my 20’s, and my husband also suffers from anxiety. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that both our children are prone to anxiety.

 

What is anxiety? 

Anxiety is a persistent feeling of worry about a vague threat, usually focused on something happening in the future. Feelings of worry may be accompanied by recurrent unwanted thoughts and physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness, racing heartbeat, or physical tension. People with anxiety disorders may avoid certain activities or situations out of worry of what might happen.³ Some level of anxiety is normal. For example, feeling nervous before a big test is common.² Anxiety is considered a disorder when it begins to interfere with a person’s daily life.

 

How can I spot anxiety in my child?

Children experience anxiety similarly to adults, but they may not have developed the ability to make sense of and describe what they are feeling yet.⁴ Parents should look out for the following symptoms:

  • Complaining of headaches or stomach aches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling sleepy or lethargic
  • Excessive crying
  • Trouble in school
  • Extreme fear or worry about everyday routines such as going to school or parents going to work.
  • Extreme worry about the future

 

It’s important to separate behavior that’s part of normal development from an anxiety issue, such as a 2-year-old having a tantrum or meltdown when parents go to work or when there's a loud noise. In addition, physical health issues should be ruled out before seeking treatment for anxiety. A visit to your pediatrician is a good first step.⁴

 

How can I help my child cope with anxiety?

Finding coping strategies for anxiety is a process of trial and error. Start by identifying activities that bring a sense of relaxation or that may help distract from negative emotions. Practice coping strategies together when you and your child are calm, so you’ll be familiar with using them when anxiety strikes. Here are some things you can try:

  • Listening to music
  • Going for a walk
  • Counting up or counting down
  • Squeezing a stress ball or therapy putty
  • Using a weighted blanket or vest
  • Naming animals in ABC order
  • Thinking about a favorite thing or place
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Drawing or painting
  • Mindfulness activities like counting your breaths, counting colors you see
  • Naming something for each sense (5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste)
  • Deep breathing or box breathing (in for 4 counts, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4)

 

Your child can also work with a therapist or coach to help manage anxiety. Take our latest child development quiz to find what's best for your family.

 

My child doesn’t talk. How can I help them manage anxiety?

Similar approaches for speaking and non-speaking people can be used to manage anxiety, provided an easy and effective method of communication has been established. A child who doesn't talk may need support with communication as a first step.⁴

 

If something triggers my child’s anxiety, they should avoid it, right?

You’d think avoiding an anxiety trigger would be the way to go, but that’s not the case. While this can reduce anxiety in the short term, avoidance can make anxiety worse over time.⁴ Controlled exposure to the trigger, called exposure therapy, can help kids and adults reduce anxiety and build a tolerance for what is making them anxious. A therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can guide you through the process.

 

Parents today can help normalize self-care.

When a developmental assessment showed my 3-year-old had elevated levels of anxiety, I was concerned. Then, I realized I had an opportunity to help my child learn to manage anxiety in a healthy way. Part of that process was working on managing my own anxiety so that I could be more calm and present for my child. Just like children, adults sometimes need a “time out” to cool off and regulate their emotions. Don’t be afraid to let your child see you practicing your anxiety management routine. You’ll be teaching them it’s ok to have anxiety and that self-care is important, too.

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Article References

  1. Nimmo-Smith V, Heuvelman H, Dalman C, et al. Anxiety Disorders in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Population-Based Study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2019;50(1):308-318. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-04234-3
  2. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Anxiety Disorders | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Nami.org. Published 2017. Accessed August 25, 2022. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders
  3. American Psychological Association. Anxiety. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety. Published 2022. Accessed August 25, 2022.