Autism and anxiety

For children and young people who are diagnosed with autism, too frequently their emotional needs and signs of anxiety are misunderstood as part of their autism. Families faced with the challenges of caring for children and young people with autism can often feel lost, despairing and hopeless.

Autistic States

Autism is not a fixed way of being. Signs of autism fluctuate and differ in every individual. A child or young person may be affected differently at different moments, and at different stages of their development.

For a child with autism, a complex mix of environmental and internal experiences can cause disturbances which are suddenly overwhelming. This can often result in challenging behaviours, which grow into cycles of distress. Changes of school, changes in family, loss and trauma can be additionally challenging for children with autism. Tiny changes can feel huge and quickly escalate into feeling completely out of control, which can be frightening.

Can therapy help?

Children and young people with additional needs and mental health concerns can find relief through specialist therapeutic approaches. Highly sensitive approaches by a therapist, can help to make sense of worries and distress and consider ways anxieties can be relieved. This can take time. Sometimes things improve quickly, or sometimes they seem to get worse before they get better.

Often children who seem to be stuck, can continue to develop, and their symptoms can improve, when anxieties are understood. Therapy is not a cure but can enable children who are diagnosed with autism to make good developmental progress. They can reach further towards their potential to be happy and fulfilled. Individual strengths can be harnessed to overcome other adversities.

Non-verbal communication can be powerful and effectively understood. Working through a range of sensory communication enables those who struggle with social and emotional difficulties and expressive language, to benefit hugely from the therapeutic space. Understanding of the self, confidence and independence can grow.

What will therapy be like?

Children who are on the autistic spectrum require a calm and safe environment, where their sensory perceptions will not be over-whelmed. The regular and reliable structure of child psychotherapy is beneficial. It takes place in a familiar room where change and excess stimulation is kept to a minimum, is particularly beneficial. I notice and respond to sensory needs and work pro-actively through a sensitive therapeutic relationship.

When is the right time?

Early help for children on the autism spectrum, can considerably improve their future relationships and ability to access learning opportunities. Early help for parents and infants and very young children, where there are worries about autistic traits can alleviate much anxiety and often help to turn things around. Support for parents with different ways of understanding the emotional experiences of an infant, child, teenager or young person with autism, can help. It can encourage the growth of relational behaviours which in turn supports social communication and language development.

Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autistic features which may cause concern:-

  • Persistent difficulties with communication and social interaction
  • Difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language such as gestures, facial expression or tone of voice.
  • A very literal understanding of language
  • Delays in speech, echolalia or talking at length without inviting dialogue.
  • Apparent insensitivity at times and hyper-sensitive at others
  • Withdrawl from relational communication
  • Unusual behaviour which feels non-relational
  • Difficulties with forming friendships.
  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests

Repetitive behaviour and routines

For some children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place. Some children prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.

The use of rules can also be important. It may be difficult for an autistic person to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the ‘right’ way to do it. Children on the autism spectrum may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but may be able to cope better if they can prepare for changes in advance.

Highly-focused interests

Many autistic children have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers.

Sensory sensitivity

Autistic children very often experience extreme sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. For example, they may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Or they may be fascinated by lights or spinning objects. At other times, they are under-sensitive.

Children often seek contact with hard or solid objects which can give a feeling of pressure. Or they may flap their arms or spin. Many children with autistic conditions gain find that jumping on a trampoline can reduce anxiety.