Category Archives: anxiety and autism

Tips to Beating the Winter Blues

It is not uncommon to feel sad, less energetic, or even irritated when the days get shorter and the winter months close in on all of us. The winter blues impact about 4 to 6 percent of Americans. Another 10 to 20 percent may have mild SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is four times more common in women than in men. Although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn’t start in people younger than age 20. Given the prevalence of these feelings here are five steps you can take to combat these seasonal blues . . . 

  • Stay Active – While it may be difficult to get outside and be active on the coldest days, it is important to keep moving and stay active. Exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms of depression and make you feel better. Walk the mall, do some yoga at home or just follow along to an exercise video. Your mood may lighten and make you feel less trapped.
  • Turn Up the Light – Our bodies react to the lack of sunlight during the winter months. Dark gloomy mornings can make our days start off with that same mood, as well. Therefore, turn on lights, or invest in a light box or special lamps that mimic natural outdoor light.
  • Get Creative – The winter months may mean that you go to school/work in the dark and return in the dark, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get creative with get-togethers.

    Plan a movie night for yourself or a group of friends. Indulge in a hobby or start a project. Instead of feeling “trapped” inside, make a list of things you enjoy and find ways to engage in those activities.

  • Share your Feelings – Believe it or not, you are not alone in these feelings. The winter blues and even seasonal affective disorder may be impacting people you know. Talk to your parents, friends, relatives and peers about what you are feeling. They may be able to help you cope.
  • Eat Smarter – The old adage “you are what you eat” is very true especially when you are feeling down. Certain foods, like chocolate, can help to enhance your mood and relieve anxiety. Other foods, like candy and carbohydrates provide temporary feelings of euphoria, but could ultimately increase feelings of anxiety and depression.

If you are feeling more than just the winter blues, talk to a teacher, counselor or friend about seeking help to get through the winter months. Children with autism and those on the spectrum, struggle with depression commonly so keep an eye on the winter blues so that they don’t continue for months on end.

Reducing Holiday Stress

The holidays are supposed to be fun and exciting as we all anticipate the festivities, decorations and  visits with friends and family. Add to that the much anticipated presents, overabundance of lights and visual stimuli and major heaps of overstimulation and     whoa . . . . things can get overwhelming quick.

Holidays can be fun and joyful but they can also be stressful and overstimulating particularly for children with autism. Here are some helpful strategies to lessen your child’s anxiety and increase your family’s enjoyment of the holiday season:

  • Keep Routines – Try to minimize disruptions to routines as much as possible. Try using visual stories and checklists whenever you need to vary from the routine of the day to reinforce positive behaviors and keep all family members on the same page. Experienced parents suggest going through a timeline of events on days when the schedule changes so there are no surprises to set off anxious behavior.
  • Decorating – As with all holidays, decorate gradually so that everything is not changed at once. Allow your child to be a part of the decorating and have some input to how things will be decorated. You know your child best, so avoid stimuli that may be too much for him/her such as flashing lights, musical decoration or scented items that may be too overwhelming.
  • Parties/Gifts and Special Moments – Again preparation is key to lessening the anxiety about opening presents, going to parties or having relatives around. It can be frustrating and stressful to see gifts that can not be opened yet so decide ahead of time if gifts will wait until later or be allowed under the tree until the last moment.
  • Shopping – Honestly, going to stores and malls during the holiday season is stressful for even the hardiest among us. Don’t be surprised if your child can not handle all the stimuli out shopping. If you do need to get out there, try early in the morning or at off peak times.


Anxiety and ASD

Anxiety is fairly common and a normal response to real or perceived threats. Feelings of worry and tension, along with physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating or trembling are common characteristics of anxiety. For children and young adults on the spectrum this is a real and serious problem. Disabling anxiety can take the form of one or more disorders, including panic disorder and phobias.

According to Indiana University at Bloomington, many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) will receive another diagnosis at some point in their development. In a 2008 study, seventy percent of a sample of children with ASD ages 10 to 14, had also been diagnosed with another disorder. Forty-one percent had been diagnosed with two or more additional disorders (Simonoff, et al). These additional disorders, or comorbid diagnoses, can, at times, be extremely debilitating for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.  The most common types of diagnoses are those related to anxiety. Researchers concluded that about 40% of children with ASD had at least one comorbid diagnosed anxiety disorder (van Steensel et al., 2011).

Have you notices these physical symptoms in your child?

  • excessive thirst
  • stomach upsets
  • loose bowel movements
  • frequent urinating
  • periods of intensely pounding heart
  • periods of having gas
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • pins and needles
  • tremors

Or have you noticed these emotional or psychological symptoms?

  • easily losing patience
  • difficulty concentrating
  • thinking constantly about the worst outcome
  • difficulty sleeping
  • depression
  • becoming preoccupied with or obsessive about one subject.

If you do notice any of these symptoms, it is important to also get medical advice to rule out other medical conditions.

Parents can play a critical role in the treatment of anxiety in their child with ASD.

1) Encourage your child for his or her effort and engagement in brave behaviors – especially when it is something they doubted they could do
2) Ignore excessive displays of anxiety
3) Distinguish between realistic and unrealistic fears so that an appropriate treatment direction can be established
4) Convey confidence in the child’s ability to handle his or her worry and anxiety
5) Model courageous behaviors
6) Work together to develop a plan for facing fears
7) Discuss how to share coping skills and the creation of exposure hierarchies with other professionals so that gains in one setting can be generalized to other settings

Halloween Tips

Halloween is a time of year that many youngsters anticipate happily. They plan their costume months in advance, and eagerly await the onslaught of candy as they rush from house to house to collect all the goodies. But for many kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), this can be a difficult and anxiety-ridden time of year.

Children and young adults with ASD have fragile nervous systems, which lend itself to the misinterpretation of environmental stimuli in numerous areas, such as sensory integration, sensory modulation, auditory processing, visual-spatial distortions, motor planning and coordination difficulties. Strange looking costumes, brightly decorated homes and other aspects of the tradition of Halloween, therefore can be unnerving, to say the least. Here are some simple tips to help make Halloween a little less stressful for your ghoul or goblin.

  • Let your child decide if Trick-or-Treating is what they want to do. He/she may want to be an observer or perhaps hand out candy at your home.  Whatever their comfort level is okay.  Remember this is a two-hour holiday that will be forgotten the next morning.
  • If your child does decide to go out to Trick-or-Treat create a story board about what to expect step-by-step. This will help your child prepare for the day’s activities. Include in the visual board where you will go, what homes and what behavior is expected at each location.
  • Consider a Halloween costume that fits over your child’s regular clothes, such as butterfly wings or capes. There is nothing worse than an itchy, uncomfortable costume for an ASD child. In fact, let your child practice wearing their costume at home. This gives you time to make any last minute modifications and time for your child to get used to it.
  • Keep trick-or-treating short and go during the earliest hours you can.
  • Do research gluten-free/casein-free Halloween treats. If your child  has a special diet, you may want to consider giving your neighbors candy that your child can eat in advance.
  • On the night of Halloween, visit several houses in your neighborhood belonging to families who know your child well.
  • If your child is afraid of going out at night, plan indoor or daytime Halloween activities.

Depression and Autism

According to Autism Speaks, children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a higher rate of psychiatric disorders than that of the general population. Research suggests that autism shares a genetic basis with several major psychiatric disorders. These include attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Let’s examine one of these co-morbid disorders – depression a bit further and see what the experts research is currently reporting.

Individuals with ASD may be particularly prone to depression as they enter adolescence and adulthood. Here again, research suggests that depression can be particularly difficult to diagnose in those with autism. In part, this may stem from communication difficulties. Compared to other depressed individuals, those with autism may be less likely to express the feelings typically used to diagnose depression. These include saying one feels depressed, worthless, unable to concentrate or suicidal. In the absence of such statements, tell-tale signs can include neglect in personal hygiene and other self-care activities.

  • Teens -Depression is more common among teens with ASD than teens without ASD. Rates of major depressive disorder have been reported as high as 37% in adolescents with ASD compared to about 5% of adolescents in the general population. Studies that measured parent reports of depressed mood have revealed a rate as high as around 50%. There is also emerging research that has shown an increased risk for suicidal thoughts and tendencies among teens with ASD. This means that parents and school staff need to be on the lookout for the signs of depression.
  • Adults on the Spectrum – According to Synapse  an adult on the autism spectrum may face a range of difficulties across three broad areas, sometimes called the triad of impairments. This means that problems will be experienced to varying degrees with social communication, social understanding and imagination. The person can have trouble in appropriate social interaction with others, establishing and maintaining friendships and being able to anticipate what will happen in given situations. Depression is an understandable reaction to employment difficulties, social isolation, relationship issues and problems with adapting to a non-autistic world.

For more information about the dealing with depression:

Autism-at-a-Glance Depression

Autism and Depression Connection

Autism and Depression Synapse Online

Changing Schools with a Child with Autism

With summer quickly drawing to a close many families are focusing on stocking up on needed school supplies or possibly a new outfit or two. Still others may be trying to fit in one last get-away before the school year begins. For parents and children who are transitioning to a new school,  however, there is a whole different type of preparation going on. Adjusting to the start of another school year can be a difficult one for any student but, if you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, you know that there are transition issues you will need to prepare for long before the end of summer. Here are some suggestions from experts at Child Mind Institute and Children’s Hospital to make your family’s transition to a new school an easier one.

  • Visit the New School – Parents with children on  the spectrum know that stress from the unknown can be unbearable for their child. Find time to visit the school and meet key players in your child’s education experience. Find the bathrooms, lunch room and the area that your child will spend the most time. Take pictures (or videos) when possible to review later.
  • Talk about the New Schedule – Change, especially unexpected change, can be extremely stressful for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with ASD often prefer to have a sense of structure and to know what to expect during the day and what activity they will be doing and when. Find out from teachers and administrators what the course of the day will look like and use story boards, charts or whatever works for your child so he/she can start to learn the new schedule of the day.
  • Use a Count Down – For many children who are transitioning to a new school knowing how much time before the big change is important. Start some sort of countdown either on a calendar or on a device they use often such as a laptop or iPad.
  • Explain Why – For many children on the spectrum they want to understand why they are leaving the comfort of their old school and changing to a new one.  Whether the change is to a program that can assist your child or from a special education school to a mainstream school – explain your thinking and how the new school will benefit your child.
  • Be Positive – While you as a parent may have just as many nerves and anxiety about the change, you will want to be positive about the transition. Talk up the great things about the school.  Remember to be genuine. No need to overboard but merely accentuate the positive.
  • Brief Teachers and Therapists – While this may seem like a no-brainer, make sure you meet with your child’s team and each teacher that he/she will have throughout the course of the day.  Your child’s special education teacher can help you communicate the needs of your child clearly.

Calming your Anxious Child

The numbers are in.  Our kids are anxious.  Well, at least 20% of school-age children show common signs of being anxious.  An even larger number of children experience stress that does not qualify as an anxiety disorder. As adults, we also have our fair share of stress and anxiety.  Thankfully, most of us have learned coping mechanism or have a way of working off the anxiety.  So, how can you help to reduce your child’s anxiety and teach them coping methods that can help them deal with speed bumps that life will throw at them?

  • Teach Relaxation Techniques and Activities — We all have things we love to do that blow off steam.  Some of us run, walk, read, listen to music or paint.  Others have developed their own unique methods to work off anxiety.  Help your child find what makes them less stressed whether it is free play time, coloring, playing video games, swinging on a swing, or exercise of some kind.  Talk about what makes you feel better.
  • Focus on the Positive – Remind your child that when they are struggling or even failing that they are still learning.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Point out all the things that your child excels at whether it is sports, video games, school, dance etc..  Show your child that everyone can’t be perfect in every way.
  • Encourage Facing a Fear – No one likes to walk into situations that make them anxious.  However, facing a fear or anxiety provoking situation may end up helping a child conquer that fear.  The body cannot remain anxious for a very long period of time so there is a system in the body that calms the body down. Usually your anxiety will reduce within 20-45 minutes if you stay in the anxiety-provoking situation.
  • Have a Comfort Item – We all have comfort items.  When I was little it was a stuffed bunny, today it is a picture of my kids playing.  Encourage your child to keep a comfort item close by when they are feeling anxious. Just the sight of it may be enough to bring a little peace to the situation.
  • Practice Breathing and Visualization Techniques – Many people who experience anxiety on a regular basis find strength in specialized visualizations and breathing exercises that can bring the heart rate down and may relax muscles.  Every child is unique and brings their own set of anxieties to each situation, so help your child find a picture in their mind that will evoke happiness and help them handle each situation in a calmer manner.