Anxiety is one of the biggest challenges facing individuals on the autism spectrum. Parents and therapists and other professionals all want and need to know how to effectively manage feelings of anxiety in individuals with autism. While anxiety and autism seem to go hand in hand, there are relatively few resources that help manage these emotions.
Managing Anxiety in People with Autism by Dr. Anne Chalfant is one of those incredible resources that gives both parents and professionals the tools for handling anxiety and autism.
Anyone who has experienced anxiety knows how debilitating it can be — it affects us at work and home, interferes with sleep, affects our appetite, and can make daily activities a challenge. For individuals with autism, anxiety often impacts family, social, and academic life, which adds to the additional difficulties associated with autism.
People with autism often struggle with social situations — knowing what to say, how to use eye contact, using appropriate body language, and initiating conversations. Thus, individuals with autism are much more likely to be anxious about their social abilities than their neurotypically developing peers.
Dr. Chalfant also points out in her book that people with autism also typically utilize “black and white” thinking, meaning they have trouble accepting exceptions to rules or beliefs or difficulty integrating new information. Dr. Chalfant uses the example of a child with autism meeting an aggressive dog; that child is more likely to think all dogs are aggressive (and have those feelings of anxiety associate with this situation) than to believe that some dogs are aggressive and others are friendly.
Emotional regulation is a third cause of anxiety that Dr. Chalfant notices in individuals with autism. When individuals with autism react to a situation, it is often with extreme emotions. When they feel anxiety, individuals with autism really experience that emotion, and it is often severe. People with autism also often have more trouble identifying triggers and appropriate responses to these anxiety-causing situations.
While anxiety and autism are so closely linked, many parents would admit that the subject of anxiety reducing techniques was not a pressing issue when their child was first diagnosed. Therapy might include behavioral, occupational, speech, and other early interventions, but anxiety management is often overlooked. While it might be unrealistic to think anxiety will go away completely, it can be greatly diminished, and individuals with autism can learn techniques for managing anxiety and utilizing these practices for themselves, which improves overall independence.
One huge trigger for individuals with autism is change. Changing a routine or environment can have an extreme impact on a person with autism. Some techniques for decreasing anxiety (and the tantrums, anger, stress, and other emotions associated with it) include discussing the change and using social stories. Helping a person with autism really understand what is happening can help them prepare for the change. Social stories include pictures and often audio that will explain a scenario, and they give that black and white depiction of an event that people with autism can understand more easily. The more you introduce to a person with autism, the more likely they are to accept, understand, and respond appropriately.
Give plenty of positive reinforcement, especially when a child with autism is acting calm. Use their favorite reinforcers, such as a sugar-free animal cracker or a tap on the shoulder. Use reassuring pictures, such as photos of loved ones or favorite places. Use weighted blankets or other sensory items as a calming device.
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