Autism Spectrum Disorders and Anxiety

ASD and AnxietyAnxiety is the most common problem that people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience. Rates of anxiety in people with ASD can be as high as almost 85%. For many, if not most people with ASD, experiencing some level of anxiety is the norm.

Anxiety can stem from a lack of understanding of social rules, processing delays, situational expectations, literal thinking, or any other number of different factors. For most people with ASD, the world is a fast-paced, confusing place that often makes no logical sense. Pervasive low-grade anxiety can negatively affect learning and performance, impair judgment, and may impair the person with ASD’s ability to self-regulate.

Sometimes low-grade anxiety can lead to emotional and behavioural disinhibition, meaning that it lowers the ability of the person to control their thoughts, actions, and feelings. When anxiety rises, functioning decreases exponentially until the person with ASD can not longer cope.

Possible signs of anxiety:
Increase in perseveration. Increase in ritualistic behaviours. Increased rate of speech. Increased body movement
Repetitive questioning. (including fidgeting or pacing).

Treating Anxiety:
People with ASD can learn to identify their anxiety triggers and earn effective ways to reduce anxiety through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other counselling approaches adapted for people on the spectrum. Sometimes medication is used to treat anxiety as well, and often the combined approach of using medication and therapy enhance effectiveness of treatment. Continued use of the skills developed through counselling may help the person learn ways to moderate his or her anxiety, which may positively impact other areas of his or her life.

It is of note that many people with ASD do not respond well to medications and may have side-effects. There are few, if any, negative side effects from utilizing cognitive behavioural approaches aside from learning new tools to help cope with different situations.

Suggested reading: Paxton, K. & Estay, I. (2007). Counselling people on the
autism spectrum: A practical manual. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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