Anxiety in Children with Autism

Everyone experiences anxiety at some stage throughout their lives.

It is a normal “feeling” and “emotion” just like happiness and sadness, moodiness and anger.

Mums who bring their children to my clinic say: Can you help my child, she’s autistic but she suffers from terrible anxiety and meltdowns.”

Constant anxiety can be very distressing for autistic children (and their families) It can lead to meltdowns, depression and self-harm. You see, children on the spectrum very often struggle with sensory processing disorder (SPD) they are sensitive to noise, light, taste, textures etc..and of course they have the added difficulty of interacting socially.

So, what is anxiety?  As I said above, anxiety is an emotion and we ALL worry about something at some time and that’s normal! However, your child may be feeling anxious every day, at school, at home, and certainly when he is taken somewhere new.

What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety in an autistic child or teenager?

  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep problems
  • Sweating
  • Hyperventilating
  • Negative thoughts
  • Self- harm (Cutting)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Meltdowns
  • Anger issues
  • Crying for no apparent reason

So, what causes it?

  • Not being able to manage their emotions
  • Not being able to self soothe
  • Difficulties with interacting socially
  • Difficulties with sensory issues, being over- sensitive, especially to noise.
  • Not being able to deal with transitions and change
  • Having to perform on stage at school or college
  • When they feel they have to “fit-in”

How you can help your child with Anxiety

Help them deal with uncertainty:

Make sure you manage your child’s day so that he has a good routine. Plan for any changes that may occur. Make sure your child knows exactly what’s going to happen and when.

Watch your Child’s Energy levels:

ASD children can get stimulation overload and so you must be aware of any signs that your child is getting low on energy and allow him to take some time out and let him do things that will keep him calm, like his favourite hobby, or listening to music.

Make sure you understand your child’s triggers:

It’s a good idea to keep a diary or just a note, of when your child gets anxious. Jot down the time of day, what he was doing, what pre- empted it, then you will be able to identify the triggers.

Teach your child how to self soothe:

Some children do a lot of stimming which can help to calm them down, or they may prefer to sit somewhere on their own with some nice soft lights and perhaps their favourite music. You can teach your ASD child some mindfulness techniques or perhaps some yoga moves.

What’s the difference between a tantrum and a melt-down?:

Many people seem to think that when an autistic child has a “meltdown,” its just like a toddler having a tantrum – WRONG! A tantrum with a toddler is always goal orientated. That is – the child asks for some sweets in the shop – mum or dad say no – child throws himself on the floor and has a tantrum. He is doing it because he WANTS something.

Whereas, when a child on the spectrum has a melt-down he/she doesn’t really “know” it’s happening and even if they have the slightest inkling it’s happening they cannot do a thing about it. It is usually sudden, and very explosive. Sometimes, parents and carers can see or feel that something is about to happen as they know the child so well that they know all the triggers. However, the best thing to do is just to keep as calm as possible yourself and guide the child to a safe place where he can’t hurt himself or anyone else. Shouting at him is only going to make matters worse, so perhaps its best to have a chat with the child or teen when he is in a good place mentally, and have some simple phrases that he understands and that you can repeat back to him.

You see, meltdowns are simply a reaction to the child feeling overwhelmed or being over stimulated. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if it’s a tantrum or a meltdown, as they do appear similar, but the parent or carer will be able to tell the difference and read the child’s signals.

Here are my top five must-haves for a sensory tool kit to help your child with meltdowns:

  • Sunglasses:

They are portable so you can always have a pair in your bag and if the sunlight is too much for your child get him to wear his cool shades.

  • A weighted blanket or a lap blanket

A weighted blanket is a must for any autistic child – the deep touch pressure will help him when he has become over stimulated. Nowadays there are all sorts of products for children, that include weights to help them, including soft toys, clothes etc.

  •    Headphones (noise cancelling)

   These will help keep out the noises like traffic, supermarket  

    Background noise etc.

  •  A crunchy or chewy snack

 If a child is hungry, he will become grouchy! Give him a snack but make it a crunchy one as this will calm him!

  • A fidget toy

There are so many of these on the market now so your child will have a great choice. Something simple is best though!

Every child is different – unique. And, every autistic child is different and has different coping mechanisms so what works for your child may not work for your friends child. Just try out different things, different strategies and as you find some that work – just add them to the sensory tool kit. At my clinic I help autistic children learn how to relax, and how to manage their anxiety so that when it DOES happen – they can cope even if mummy or daddy isn’t there. Contact me if you need advice at:

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