Anxiety and Autism

Families with disabled children will be amongst the hardest hit by the cost-of-living crisis according to Contact, the charity for families with disabled children, with a third of families already in debt due to the Covid-19 pandemic (Contact, 2022). More than 72% of disabled households have been plunged into debt by the cost-of-living crisis (Sense, 2022) and the constant worry about money is having a profound effect on people’s mental and physical health, with 48 per cent reporting the rising prices as worsened long-standing health condition and 51 percent saying their mental health has worsened as a result of recent rising costs (Scope, 2022), and 55 percent said they felt anxious, depressed or hopeless about financial worries and problems (Leonard Cheshire, 2022).

Anxiety often affects a child’s thoughts and feeling, and may present itself in behavioural issues or emotional outbursts, so it may not always be easy to spot the signs. A child can even seem generally happy, but still be anxious that it interferes with their personal development, family life and schooling. 

Like anxiety icebergs are deceiving because they show you a tip of what lies beneath the surface. Therapists often illustrate this idea with an image like this:

Download Anxiety Iceberg by clicking here

What is Anxiety?

The NHS describes anxiety as ‘a feeling of stress, panic or fear that can affect your everyday life physically and psychologically.’

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autistic spectrum disorders are more likely to have problems with anxiety.

According to research by Autistica anxiety disorders affect 42% of autistic children compared with just 3% of children without autism.

How do I know my child is suffering from anxiety?

It’s completly normal for children to feel worried or anxious from time to time and it’s often a part of growing up. Children may become worried or anxious about starting school or nursery, moving home, or relocating to a new area.  However, when anxiety starts to affect day to day life, your child may be suffering from anxiety. 

Stressful events that can bring on anxiety in children include:

  • parents fighting or arguing
  • frequently moving house or school
  • the death of a close relative or friend
  • becoming seriously ill or getting injured in an accident
  • school-related issues like exams or bullying
  • being abused or neglected

Commons triggers for anxiety in autistic children include:

  • uncertainty and change in routine – for example, not going to weekly football practice because it has been cancelled 
  • sensory triggers, for example loud noises or certain smells, bright or flickering lights, specific flavours or food textures
  • social situations, for example going to an unfamiliar house or place or route that the child hasn’t been or taken before
  • expectations, pressures and demands, for example not doing tasks when required to do them, like putting on shoes, getting dressed, or sitting at a table 
  • anticipating specific situations, for example like going to school can be totalling frightening and create great anxiety or panic in a child who is autistic
  • specific fears like large crowds, dogs, popping balloons, or needles
  • changes in environment, for example, a new house, new play equipment at the local park, or furniture in different places at home
  • fear of a particular situation, activity or object – for example, sleeping in their own bed or going to the toilet
  • times of transition – for example, starting nursery or secondary school

Signs of anxiety in children

Some children are simply born more anxious and less able to cope with stress than others. Children can also pick up anxious behaviour from being around anxious people.

Signs that your child may be anxious include: 

  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • feeling restless or worried
  • not sleeping, or waking in the night with bad dreams
  • a churning feeling in your stomach
  • a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
  • faster breathing
  • not eating properly
  • sweating or hot flushes
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • problems sleeping
  • panic attacks
  • short temper or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts
  • negative thoughts and contstant worrying 
  • feeling tense and fidgety, or using the toilet often
  • always crying
  • being clingy
  • complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell

Additional signs of anxiety in autistic children

  • their palms get sweaty
  • a strange feeling in their stomach
  • a racing heart rate 
  • hand flagging and or figetting 
  • feeling short of breath
  • feeling aditated and distressed
  • sweating and feeling sick 
  • verbally saying they don’t want to do something or go somewhere
  • seeking lots of reassurance
  • avoiding situations and objects – like refusing to go to school
  • meltdowns, outbursts and tantrums
  • overthinking things and ‘getting stuck’
  • a strong preference for routine and sameness
  • repetitive behaviour like rocking, stimming or flapping
  • obsessive routines or play
  • running away
  • self-harm

Help and support 

If anxiety is affecting the quality of your child’s life, then speak to your GP. 

Your GP might suggest counselling, therapy, or medication to help. 

Relaxtion and calming strategies 

You can help your child learn ways to calm down when they start feeling anxious or stressed. These might include:

  • counting slowly to 10
  • taking 5 deep breaths
  • 5 finger breathing 
  • running around the yard 5 times
  • doing 50 jumps on the trampoline
  • looking at a collection of favourite or special things
  • reading a favourite book
  • closing eyes for a few moments
  • going to a quiet part of the house.
To find out about how I AM can offer support contact us at admin@i-am or give us a call on 0161 866 8483
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