Tell a parent of a child with autism that 40 percent of children on the autism spectrum also have an anxiety disorder, and odds are you won’t be met with surprise.
Parents of children with autism are all too familiar with the signs of anxiety; the outbursts when a predictable routine unexpectedly changes, the self-soothing behaviors to cope with inner worry, the obsessive-compulsive rituals. While these anxiety symptoms are often masked by a child’s autism, they present a real challenge for children and their families. Children with comorbid anxiety and autism experience more behavioral issues and functional difficulties than children with one disorder or the other.
Researchers are still investigating the best approach for treating anxiety in children on the autism spectrum. While medications used to treat anxiety in people without autism show some evidence of helping kids on the spectrum, they also seem to worsen other behaviors, namely hyperactivity, impulsivity, and insomnia.
That’s not to say parents should rule out medication — research is still underway, and so far, results show that medication can help some children with autism and anxiety, if not all. However, it’s not all parents can do to alleviate anxiety in their child.
If you have a child with anxiety and autism, these strategies may help.
Identifying the anxiety triggers of a child with autism is difficult, especially if the child has developmental delays that affect the ability to communicate. However, many children with autism share similar triggers, including unfamiliar situations, changes to routines, social situations, and lack of sleep. Many children also have sensory triggers; while these tend to be highly individual, parents can familiarize themselves with sensory processing disorder to learn the types of sensory hypersensitivities and narrow in on their child’s specific triggers.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven effective against anxiety disorders in the general population, and there’s evidence to support its use in children on the autism spectrum as well. CBT aims to alter a patient’s thought patterns to reduce negative responses to difficult situations. This gives children the tools they need to manage their emotions without outside intervention. Researchers have found that CBT is effective not only against anxiety but also anger, depression, and other emotional challenges.
A 2019 study found that over 80 percent of children with autism experienced improved anxiety symptoms after six months of treatment with cannabidiol-based oil. While the study in question used a CBD product with low amounts of THC, which isn’t currently available outside of states with medical cannabis, parents can access legal hemp-derived CBD products no matter where in the US they live. While CBD oil is the most available product, children who have issues with the taste or texture of oil may do better with CBD gummies. Parents should talk to their child’s doctor or therapist before adding CBD to their child’s treatment regimen, as well as read up on the different gummies currently available on the market.
Relaxation techniques quiet the intense physiological response triggered by anxiety. However, in order for relaxation techniques to be effective, children must practice them in safe situations. Parents can role play stressful scenarios with their children and teach them how to identify difficult thoughts and emotions and manage them through relaxation. Deep breathing is one technique used by neurotypical individuals and people with autism alike. Children with autism may also find calm from fidgeting or positive sensory experiences, such as playing with water or stroking a comfort object.
As you can see, there’s no quick fix for anxiety in children with autism. The experience of anxiety is a highly individualized one, and the coping strategies and treatments that work for one child may have no meaningful effect on another. However, by experimenting with different strategies and finding what resonates with their child, parents can turn their child’s anxiety into something predictable and manageable.