While this is something not every parent would have to deal with, managing anxiety is an issue most parents of children with autism would have to face at some point in their lives. Anxiety in kids with autism can be exhausting and intense. It manifests itself with one or all of the following signs: mild to severe agitation or aggression, increased obsessiveness, and changes in social behavior. As parents, we need to understand what anxiety is all about for us to help our children with autism to cope with anxiety attacks.
“The autism diagnosis itself is often traumatic for parents,” stressed Janeen Herskovitz, LMHC. “During the process,” she continued, “parents are typically faced with myriad feelings, including anxiety, guilt, excessive worry, hope, and fear about the future.”
Types Of Anxiety With Autism
Any form of anxiety can occur in someone with autism, but the most common types are specific phobia, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and social anxiety.
Specific phobia is a type of anxiety wherein a person fears a particular object, place, or situation. For instance, a child with autism may feel anxious when brought into an amusement park or to a dark theater to watch a movie; thus, avoiding these places is necessary (read more about it here: babycenter.com)
Obsessive-compulsive behavior, on the other hand, is characterized by repetitive and obsessive behavior. Children with this type of anxiety feel that something negative will happen to them if they do not do an action repeatedly. John Grohol, PsyD wrote in his article, “A hallmark of OCD is that the person recognizes that their thoughts or behaviors are senseless or excessive. However, the drive can be so powerful that the person caves in to the compulsion even though they know it makes no sense.”
Meanwhile, social anxiety is often present in kids with autism because of their struggles with social interactions. It can manifest in their conversations, body language, and eye contact.
What Causes Anxiety?
Unexpected changes in routine, such as changes in schedules or new social situations like attending birthday parties or weddings, may cause anxiety in children with autism.
Losing their loved ones or being separated from familiar faces and surroundings may trigger anxiety in kids with autism.
Children with autism who suffer from anxiety have an abnormal level of neurotransmitters, which means their brains have trouble transmitting information.
Parents’ Role In Managing Anxiety In Their Autistic Child
Parents whose child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may need help in coping and managing the anxiety of their child. Here are some pointers in dealing with your child’s anxiety:
- First of all, find out what makes your child anxious. Since children with autism have difficulty in communicating their feelings, you, as parents, should look for signals or triggers that make them feel anxious. It may help if you make a list of these situations so that you can give your child plenty of opportunities to practice in dealing with these unfamiliar situations.
- Teach your child to understand what anxiety does in his/her body by asking what he/she feels. For instance, you can ask your child if his/her palms are getting sweaty or if his/her heart beats faster. This way, your child will be able to inform you of what he/she is experiencing during an anxiety attack. Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist, has this to say about OCD in children: “OCD can be very overwhelming to families and can really interfere with how families can normally function. The family decisions are made to accommodate the anxiety, rather than the best interests of the family.”
- Use calming and relaxing strategies for your child to learn how to calm down if he/she starts to feel anxious or stressed. These strategies might include the following: counting from one to ten, taking five deep breaths, running around the house, or reading a favorite book.
- Visual techniques, such as using photographs, can help your child cope with stressful situations or environments. Children with autism are visual learners; thus, it may help to teach them what they would do in a particular place by showing them a picture of their task so that they would know in advance what you expect from them. Giving them a printed schedule of their activities for the day or week would also prepare them for what is coming next.
- Use distractions to help calm your anxious child, such as letting him/her try an activity or giving a toy that he/she enjoys. Your child may find the spy gear toys cool to play with. It’s also a fun form of imaginative style of playing.
- Rehearsing or practicing situations that are stressful for him/her will help your child visually understand them. This strategy will also help the child cope with anxiety by preparing him/her physically.
- Essential oils, such as chamomile, lavender, and jasmine oils, are gaining popularity for their calming and relaxing ability to treat a variety of mental issues including anxiety and autism.
- Getting help from a psychologist may be your last option if your child has a severe anxiety disorder. These professionals use a range of approaches, such as cognitive behavior therapy, interventions using gradual exposure, social stories, and relaxation training, in aiding your child to relax. Sometimes, medication may be administered to help calm the child.
As parents, coping with anxiety in kids with autism is daunting. Nonetheless, you must power through for their sake.