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How are anxieties expressed in autism?

It is especially important to recognise and treat anxiety properly as it has a great impact on how society views autism.

Anxiety is not a core characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but anxiety disorders are one of the most common co-morbid conditions for children on the spectrum.

As individuals with autism may have trouble communicating their emotions verbally, outward manifestations of anxiety might be the only clue that something is bothering or overwhelming them. For instance, some of our clients express themselves through disruptive behaviours – avoiding new tasks, stimming behaviours, or even giggling. Parents or caregivers may notice an increase in these challenging behaviours in stressful situations and might misinterpret them as signs of mischief.

This often leads to punishment which in turn causes the behaviors to escalate. Chronic stress due to such punishment may be devastating to the child’s mental well-being. Hence, it is crucial to identify the following manifestations of anxiety to eliminate or minimize stress levels that comes along with it.

1. Stimming behaviours

Children on the spectrum may display self-stimulating behaviours (also known as stimming behaviours) when they are overwhelmed with sensory information or feeling anxious. Some examples of stimming behaviours can include giggling, flapping of hands, rearranging objects, etc.

As mentioned in our previous article “How to deal with stimming and what should I do when my child stims?”, we do not necessarily need to intervene as long as these behaviours are not disruptive to the child’s learning or to people around him. In the case when the child is anxious, we may want to remove the source of stress instead.

2. Aggression

Children on the spectrum do not necessarily express their fears, frustration or anxieties in the same way as other children. At times, they express their emotions through aggressive behaviours toward others or even themselves. Some examples include hitting, throwing objects or head-banging. They can display aggression due to their difficulty understanding the social situation or that they are experiencing sensory sensitivities and want to simply escape from the overwhelming situation. Similarly to the fight-and-flight system, the child is fighting off potential threats to protect himself.

3. Inappropriate or Lack of response

Individuals with autism also face difficulties understanding even common social scenarios and very often unable to respond appropriately. As a result, they usually choose not to respond, look away or start talking about a different topic. Such behaviors are most of the time interpreted by others as being rude.

It is especially important to recognise and treat anxiety properly as it has a great impact on how society views autism. For example, aggression due to distress may instill fear. However, with the right intervention, we will be able to not just improve social acceptance but also help build greater confidence and self-esteem in the child.

Hope that this article will help you gain a better understanding of some examples on how anxieties are expressed in autism. Look out for subsequent article where we will be sharing more on how to reduce anxiety in autism. Drop us a comment if you have any enquiries or if you would like to share more about this topic.

Written by Winnie.

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