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Anxiety: why it happens and how to cope

autism anxiety

For a significant number of autistic children and their parents, anxiety is something that often builds during stressful situations. Whatever the reason, it can be difficult to just snap out of and could cause those suffering it to feel as though the whole world is against them.

According to Anxiety UK, anxiety tends to provoke plenty of symptoms, both in the mind and body. It can be caused by all manner of things, from an upcoming doctor’s appointment to a fast-approaching exam at school. It’s quite common for autistic children to experience it, with their anxieties potentially giving parents something to worry about.

In this blog post, there will be an explanation of why anxiety happens and how it can be managed in a way that’s doable for both mother and child.

Why it happens

Anxiety happens when someone is worried about what’s happening right now, what happened in the past, what’s occurring around them or what could or will happen in the future. Some, but not all, autistic children want a degree of routine and certainty in their lives, so if something isn’t going to plan or if there’s an incident or event that they don’t like, they’re bound to feel anxious.

Other reasons why an autistic child may experience anxiety include sensory overload becoming far too much to handle, a sudden change in environment, an upcoming task that they’re dreading and fear of getting something wrong.

That anxiety could feed through to parents who might not know of the best way to keep their kids’ anxiety in check. From the parents’ point of view, there’s worry over what’s making their child anxious, how long it could last for and how to reassure them that everything is going to be okay.

Signs of anxiety

Anxiety can present itself in a number of ways. In many autistic children, it depends on how anxious they are and their preferred ways of expressing their feelings. Here are a few common signs to tell whether or not your son/daughter is anxious:

  • Stimming – fidgeting, rocking, humming, pulling and pushing in particular. It’s something a lot of autistic kids are likely to resort to if they’re feeling anxious
  • Crying – if they’re worried about getting an upcoming task wrong such as cleaning their room, the tears may begin to flow through feeling helpless
  • Pacing – if there’s too much nervous energy in your child, they may begin to walk around, pacing while thinking about what’s making them anxious
  • Not being able to focus on what they want or need to do – if their mind is on the cause of their anxiety, they might not feel like eating, drinking, doing homework or even something they enjoy

If you see any of the above signs, it’s important to act quickly, but in a gentle, caring manner. In the next part of this post, we’ll go over ways you can help to calm the anxieties of your child and yourself.

Coping strategies

There are different ways of coping with anxiety for different situations. Here are some that can be applied for many scenarios:

  • Reassure your child that everything is going to be okay. Show belief in them and they will feel much calmer. Do this regularly just in case their anxiety flares up again
  • Let them stim if that helps your child to be as calm as possible. Give them something to play with like some blu tak or a tangle toy to help them along the way
  • Don’t force them into doing anything; this could lead to a meltdown or shutdown
  • Try to minimise the risk of sensory overload. It can help to calm the senses and reduce the risk of your child entering a meltdown

For pre-planned activities and events, it’s always worth ensuring that everything is taken care of. If, for example, your child has a piece of homework they’re really anxious about, ensure that they have everything they need – a textbook, pen/pencil, paper, calculator, access to the internet. Try and make their environment less cluttered, as it will help them to focus.

On a trip out, make sure that everything is pre-planned. For travel, make sure you’ve done a thorough journey plan and have got all the timings correct; if travelling by plane, train, bus or coach, ensure the tickets are bought and check for the latest travel news along the route. Have some food and drink handy for the journey, while the trip back should be just as carefully-planned.

Relaxation plan

To lessen the ill effects of anxiety in your children, drawing up a clear, concise relaxation plan can work wonders. To do so, you’ll need the following:

  • A visual timetable – this can be done with a sheet of A4/A3 paper and a pen, or by buying one online
  • A list of relaxing activities, such as stimming, drawing, writing, reading or listening to music
  • Work out what helps your child to unwind. Ask them and promise that when they’re feeling anxious, they can do that to make them feel better
  • Sensory aids such as bubble tubes, glow sticks and night lights. Have these on in the dark so that your child’s room becomes a sensory room

It might also be worth writing down a list of common things that make your kid anxious and find out what works. Write down what symptoms are most likely to occur and what coping strategy works for each cause of anxiety. Then, you’ve got something to refer to in case of emergencies.

Finally, be sure to do something to calm your own anxieties. As your child might like to do, try something that helps you to feel happy. It could be a long soak in the bath, watching a film or reading a book. Whatever you can do when your child’s in bed or at school, basically.

Anxiety is one of the worst feelings that any autistic child can experience. By spotting the signs early and offering to help without being forceful, you’ll help them to cope with it before they approach meltdown territory.

Other posts and websites that may help:

Jedi Mindfulness Tricks to Help an Anxious Child

Autism and mental illness: a teenager’s perspective

YoungMinds is an excellent website offering information to help young people with mental health issues.

Off The Record provides free, confidential mental health support for young people aged 11-25 in Bristol.

Psychology Tools offers free downloadable resources to help with mental health issues.

A YouTube video by Yvonne Newbold on how to help an autistic child who struggles with anxiety

Managing anxiety in children with ASD – a piece from Raisingchildren.net.au, an Australian website

About the author

Luke Aylward

Luke Aylward

Luke is an Aspie copywriter and designer based in Leeds. He's the chairman of a local support group and enjoys providing accessible info around all things autism.

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