Autism and Anxiety

What is autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopment condition which affects approximately 1 in 100 people in the UK. It is a life-long developmental condition that impacts an individual’s social skills and self-regulation. These challenges can make communication and relationships more difficult. 

What is anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling of stress and worry and according to the World Health Organisation is the most common mental health issue. Everyone experiences feelings of fear and worry at times but it becomes a real issue when it is long-lasting, distressing and/or effects your quality of life. Anxiety disorders are a collection of conditions including:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety)
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Autism and Anxiety

For adults on the autism spectrum, anxiety is even more common than for the general population. Some of the reasons suggested for this include:

  • Social communication issues and expectations
  • Sensory issues
  • The stress of dealing with new situations

The stress of dealing with constant anxiety can have a significant effect on the physical and mental health of  people with autism. It can lead to meltdowns, self-harm and depression.

What can help?

Below are some suggestions to help minimise anxiety. Although it’s not possible to remove the feelings of worry completely, there are strategies to minimise its impact on your quality of life.

  1. Identify what anxiety feels like

Each person will experience anxiety differently. Think about what physical sensations and thoughts you experience when you are worried so you can start to recognise these happening earlier. This can help you to put in coping strategies earlier. 

  1. Identify the triggers

It is important to identify what the triggers of anxious episodes are. For example, noisy or busy environments commonly cause a lot of stress for people with autism. Or the stresses of social misunderstandings. Keeping a journal of anxiety symptoms and how serious they are could be useful to help you see what your triggers could be.

3. Minimise exposure to trigger situations

If it is possible, try and avoid situations that could be a trigger. For example, if busy places are a trigger, you could try shopping in quiet times and avoiding the busiest crowds. It might be useful to speak to your workplace about how they can help too. 

4. Identify and develop your coping mechanisms

It is not always possible to avoid triggers completely so finding ways to help yourself cope in situations that cause anxiety is useful. For some, having fidget toys or a distraction can help ease stress. For some others, mindfulness and deep breathing can help regulate their stress. Others find music or reading can be useful for calming. Thinking about when you have coped in stressful situations and what was different about these times because this could unearth some coping devices. Once you find a strategy that helps, for example music, make sure you have ready access to music and headphones throughout your day. 

5. Energy Banking

World-renown autism researcher, Tony Attwood, talks about energy banking. Everyday tasks and activities can take a toll on people with autism and cause a significant ‘withdrawal’ of energy from their energy bank. It is important to find ways to deposit energy bank into the bank to replenish this energy.

The things that deplete and refill your energy bank will vary from person to person but here are some examples. 

Withdrawals that might sap energy: work, public places, crowds, noise, change …etc

Deposits that might restore energy: music, walking, creative pursuits (i.e. colouring or painting) … etc

Counselling and other support

Sometimes, avoiding triggering situation and developing coping skills is not enough and professional support is more appropriate. Counselling can help to provide the you with an outlet for anxious feelings in a safe and nurturing environment. Try and find a counsellor who has experience working with people with autism and understands its unique challenges.

You can find out more about autism or gain further support from the National Autistic Society and Autism Wessex.

“Autism is like a rainbow. It has a bright side and a darker side. But every shade is beautiful and important”

-Rosie Tennant Doran

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