Anxiety and Autism

July 14, 2015

Having a child with autism or on the autism spectrum means dealing with communication, social and developmental issues.  Thirty percent of those affected by autism, unfortunately, also have an anxiety disorder. These disorders include social phobia, separation anxiety, excessive worry, obsessive compulsive disorder and extreme fears – for instance fear of loud noises, new people, new situations, snakes, etc.. These additional disorders, or comorbid diagnoses, can at times be extremely debilitating for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. According to the Indiana Resource Center for Autism the prevalence of specific anxiety disorders in youth with ASD were found at the following rates:

• Specific Phobia: 30%
• Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: 17%
• Social Anxiety Disorder/Agoraphobia: 17%
• Generalized Anxiety Disorder: 15%
• Separation Anxiety Disorder: 9 %
• Panic Disorder: 2%

Children with autism express anxiety or nervousness in many of the same ways as typically developing children do. They also may experience similar physical and psychological symptoms.  Physically, a child may experience a racing heart, muscular tensions, sweating and stomachache to name a few.  Psychologically, children may  lose patience easily, have difficulty concentrating, experience depression, and have repetitive thoughts about something bad happening.  The psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety are closely linked and so can lead to a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.

Recent studies of children on the autism spectrum show that cognitive behavioral and medicinal therapies have been fairly successful in helping children deal with anxiety.  According to Autism Speaks, several types of cognitive behavioral therapy have been developed to address anxiety in children and teens with ASD, with promising results from several clinical research centers. Techniques include challenging negative thoughts with logic, role-playing, modeling courageous behavior and incremental (step-by-step) exposure to feared situations. (Read More about study results) Behavioral To date, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medication expressly for the treatment of anxiety in persons with autism. However some classes of drugs commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders in the general population likewise help many of those on the autism spectrum. These include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and other SSRIs.