For children and young people with autism, the world can be an especially confusing and unpredictable place. This can lead to a greatly increased chance of your child developing anxiety issues.
How do I know if my child’s feeling anxious?
When it’s all getting too much for your child, they may not able to communicate to you how they’re feeling. It’s also possible that they don’t understand the emotions they are feeling. Look out for some of the following signs:
- An inability to follow routines, particularly those they’ve managed well before.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Displays of behaviour that are out of character for them. This might include aggression towards others, themselves and the environment around them.
- Withdrawing from or avoiding social situations.
- Displaying more obsessive behaviours such as lining up objects, organising collections.
- Self-stimulatory behaviours such as rocking, spinning or flapping.
The physical signs of anxiety can include; increased heart rate, muscular tensions, sweating, stomach or headaches and dizziness.
Finding the causes of anxiety
Before you can help your child manage their anxiety, you need to establish what’s causing it. Some possible causes can include:
- Changes to routines or the introduction of new routines.
- Changes to their environment at home, school and elsewhere.
- Unfamiliar social situations including birthday parties, Christmas etc.
- Sensory sensitivities. Remember this can extend to all five senses.
- A lack of sensory stimulation that meets their needs.
- Occurrence of a particular situation, for example going to bed or entering a classroom.
To help you keep track of what causes anxiety, you could make a list or keep a diary of when anxiety occurs and what that anxiety looks like. Noting events, location and activities can, over time, also help pinpoint issues which are not immediately obvious.
Even once you think you’ve pinpointed the cause, it’s important to bear in mind that your child’s anxiety can vary in intensity too.
How can I help my child manage their anxiety?
It’s unrealistic to completely eliminate the causes of anxieties in your child’s life. Trying to put controls in place to keep their lives constant can cause increased stress and anxiety in you as a parent. This may well be picked up on by your child and counteract much of the work you’ve done.
The most realistic way to manage anxieties is to develop a number of coping strategies, an understanding of their feelings and emotions and ways to communicate their needs to others.
As a parent, you can try some of the following to potentially lessen the effects of anxiety:
- Once you are sure that your child has had their anxieties triggered by a specific event, you may wish to communicate with them about their feelings and recognising what anxiety is.
- Using relaxation or calming techniques such as taking deep breaths, asking for a break or leaving the room.
- Removal or blocking of sensory stimulating objects.
- Using visual timetables and timers to let the young person know what is expected of them throughout the day.
- Develop a successful method of communication for the young person so that they can let others know of their anxiety levels before a ‘crisis’ point.
Where can I go for help?
If you still have concerns about your child’s anxieties; you’ll need to seek professional advice. For example, a referral to a clinical or educational psychologist can be requested from your GP. Research shows that for higher functioning children, an augmented form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be helpful in addressing the anxious thoughts and changing their behaviours surrounding anxiety. Counselling or mindfulness workshops can also help.
Medication may also be an option but depending on the severity of your child’s anxiety, it’s perhaps preferable to explore other options first.