Some form of anxiety is something everyone faces at one time or another, but excessive worrying, phobias, panic attacks, and anxiety disorder can all be debilitating to any individual. The fear of a potential threat or danger is usually irrational, too often unseen, and for the most part it is fought internally. Add to that the communication problems that come with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and both diagnosis and treatment of anxiety become much harder. However, there is help for individuals on the autism spectrum with mild to severe anxiety and lots of ways for both the person and caregivers to help manage anxiety disorders.
1. WHAT ANXIETY DOES (AND DOESN’T) LOOK LIKE
Stress can be a part of everyday life, but for many individuals it becomes something much more than general, temporary worrying. It’s common to be stressed with homework or before starting a new job, but anxiety is much more than that. Anxiety is a recurring or constant feeling of fear or dread of a perceived threat that can be triggered by specific situations (like public speaking), stimuli (like loud noises), or the body’s natural “fight or flight” response. Unfortunately, many who suffer from anxiety do so privately, hiding their fears, worries, and even panic attacks from others. Someone suffering from anxiety may very well show signs that they are distressed, but conversely they may also have a smile on their face.
2. THE VICIOUS CYCLE
One of the worst parts of an anxiety disorder is what is known as the vicious cycle. Anxiety can come on as the result of a specific event or trigger, or it may develop slower over a period of time. But once the anxiety begins, many begin to worry about the anxiety itself. Those with social anxiety or panic attacks may begin to worry not only during the panic attack, but start to worry about when the next panic attack may happen, who might see them have a panic attack, or if they will be able to get help when anxiety sets in. This anxiety about the panic attacks only puts the individual in a more worried and nervous state which will inevitably lead to another panic attack. Thus the vicious cycle sets in, where the anxiety becomes the object of fear, replacing or being added to the original fear.
3. THERE’S A PREVALENCE OF ANXIETY IN THOSE WITH ASD
According to several studies a large percentage of those on the autism spectrum will be diagnosed with an additional, or comobid, disorder. The number of those with a comorbid diagnosis of an anxiety disorder is around 40 percent. The most common forms of an anxiety disorder accompanying autism are specific phobia related, such as the fear of choking, thunderstorms, or any other specific fear. Other anxiety disorders commonly diagnosed alongside autism are social anxiety, separation anxiety, and panic disorder. Knowing that anxiety is a common problem for those with an autism spectrum diagnosis is a key factor is recognizing it, treating it, and even being prepared for it.