Autism and anxiety — if A is for autism, then it is most definitely also for anxiety
Anxiety and other similar problems are rife in the 21st-century, but for many people the issues are episodic or caused by an obvious external factor.
(Anxiety UK reports that anxiety disorders are very common, with 1 in 6 adults regularly experiencing some form of ‘neurotic health problem’, and the most common neurotic disorders being anxiety and depressive disorders. More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life, reports the organisation. Source — www.anxietyuk.org.uk)
Anxiety can really be considered to be part of your autistic DNA…
However if you are on the autistic spectrum, for many individuals, anxiety can really be considered to be part of your autistic DNA. There is very little in the way of hard and fast stats and figures to indicate anxiety levels among autists. (The National Autistic Society states that autistic children and young people can experience a high ‘base level’ of anxiety every day. ‘Autistica’ advises that anxiety is ‘common’ in autists.)
Spectrum News reported that the reason we see ‘classic things’ like social phobia and generalised anxiety [in autists] is because people on the autistic spectrum have unique, distinct ways of perceiving the world. They reported in 2017 that Psychologist Connor Kerns, assistant professor at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, USA, is working with others on new ways to measure both ordinary and unusual forms of anxiety in people with autism. There are links to hers and others’ studies on anxiety and autism HERE.
Is a degree of anxiety an inbuilt factor for someone who is autistic?
But through this author’s communication with other autistic individuals, and from collating information, it seems that a substantial degree of anxiety is an inbuilt factor with autism.
Many autists would for example describe their anxiety (on a scale of 1–10) at being at five, just as a baseline. Just getting through the day with all of the run-of-the-mill, usual challenges can be very stressful for autists; it is as if our neutral state is to have a certain level of anxiety.
If you know about autism, then the reasons for anxiety are obvious
If you know about autism then the reasons for this anxiety are obvious. Probably a major factor is social masking — trying to fit in with the world, and say and do things that others consider appropriate — which can be exhausting and stressful.
If you are an undiagnosed autist, there is the constant feeling of being different and not fitting in, or failing at being your best self. Very stressful! If you are a child, this is compounded by all of the developmental issues, and social and educational expectations.
Just the neurological differences for autists, in terms of elements like executive function, memory, sensory issues, emotional calibration and communication, can bring about a sense of anxiety. And this is without all of the usual stresses concerning finances, places of education, workplaces, relationships and so on.
The pressures are anxiety-inducing to an autistic child
For a school-aged child, or more specifically a child who is educated at school, the pressures of fitting in and completing school work when you have issues like executive function difficulties and possibly other comorbid autistic conditions can be immensely stressful and anxiety-inducing.
It is no wonder that unexplained anxiety is often one of the first things that parents of undiagnosed autistic children notice. And it is no surprise that so many children hold it together emotionally at school, and let out their emotions at home, leading to unhelpful third party comments like: ‘Well, he / she doesn’t seem to be very anxious at school.’
Personally speaking, e.g. from the author’s own autistic experience, I can say that my anxiety never goes away, but it is manageable. However, this has only really come about with an autism diagnosis.
Talking therapies, mindfulness etc can help, but really the key is to know your own autistic spectrum. (See our blog on this subject below).
Aspie-superpower days - why autists may be on an 'autistic spectrum within a spectrum'
When you are diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition, it takes a while to process everything, if you were not aware…
Know your own autistic spectrum
So what do we mean by this? We mean, what triggers you; what overloads you in a sensory or social capacity; what external factors cause frustration; anger or upset; what sensory challenges affect your mood? What activities that you are engaged in (whether this is social activities, or within the educational action setting, workplace etc) make you stressed? Which family members, friends, associates or workplace colleagues are drains or fountains? (Drains being the people who drain you of your emotional energy, and fountains being the people who replenish it).
Would it be feasible to stay away from the drains to a degree, no matter who they are?
Or is there a way to educate the people around you further about what you need to do to reduce your anxiety day-to-day, in a self-care capacity?
Targeting anxiety as an autist
There are of course age-appropriate medications available for anxiety, in addition to therapies, dietary and exercise interventions and natural remedies as well, which individuals or their parents can discuss with the relevant healthcare provider.
But let’s look at it simply — if you had a severe allergic reaction to a type of animal or a plant, would you constantly be in close proximity to the animal or plant? Would you take a job in that field? it would be inadvisable, for your health. Yet many of us on the autistic spectrum continue to do things that cause an unpleasant reaction to our bodies.
Anxiety is a psychological response which can have physiological consequences. Noticing one’s triggers, or the triggers for a child, is a massive step on the road to managing anxiety.
Autistic burnout — Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload.
Anxiety that builds up is a factor for an autist heading to autistic shutdown, autistic meltdown or even autistic breakdown or burnout. Stories abound of young autistic adults reaching key developmental stages in their life, for example the start of high school or the start of university, and then having a complete emotional breakdown.
Noticing one’s own anxiety levels can be immensely helpful
Noticing one’s own anxiety levels can be immensely helpful in preventing these incredibly detrimental occurrences. For example, noticing: changes in appetite or interest in food; an increase in harmful repetitive processes (including thoughts), and self stimulating behaviours that are detrimental; general apathy and lethargy; a lack of patience with people and reduced capacity to socialise to one’s usual capacity; and even a change in one’s heartbeat, if you use a health / activity tracker.
In children, are they ‘acting out’ a little more (behaviour that challenges is often a big ‘red flag’ sign); or having more meltdowns or episodes of sadness?
Are they finding it harder to regulate their emotions; withdrawing into themselves; exhibiting more self soothing stims; having difficulties in their place of education; becoming more controlling of their environment, or experiencing increased levels of perfectionism?
Helping autistic children to identify their own responses could be very useful.
If a child is experiencing any significant number of the above signs, it could be time to reduce their sensory challenges and level of socialisation, reduce the demands put upon them, and do whatever is needed to help them recalibrate in a safe place, with plenty of downtime that meets their needs.
A little disclaimer — here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions.
The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
Originally published at Spectra Blog.