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The Relationship Between Anxiety and Autism

For many young people on the autism spectrum, the intersection between anxiety and autism is a prevalent and often challenging reality. In fact, 40 percent of those diagnosed with autism also have an anxiety disorder diagnosis

This significant overlap highlights a critical aspect of the autistic experience that is sometimes overlooked or misunderstood. Anxiety in autistic individuals often manifests uniquely, influenced by the distinct cognitive and sensory processing traits associated with autism. 

By understanding the relationship between anxiety and autism, we, as parents and educators, can provide more effective support and improve the quality of life for those on the autism spectrum. 

The Overlap Between Anxiety and Autism

Anxiety and autism share several common features. Individuals with autism often experience heightened anxiety in social situations, during changes in routine, or in response to sensory overload. This anxiety can present in ways similar to those without autism, such as increased heart rate, avoidance behavior, and intense feelings of distress

For some people on the autism spectrum, the internalized pressures of trying to conform to social norms or “mask” their autistic traits can further exacerbate anxiety levels. The difficulty in communicating emotions, a characteristic often associated with autism, can also make it difficult to express anxiety, leading to misinterpretation or underestimation of the anxiety’s impact. 

Similarly, anxiety can amplify autistic traits. For instance, an individual might become more fixated on specific routines or interests when anxious, as these serve as a source of comfort and predictability. 

Reasons for Anxiety’s Prevalence in Autistic Individuals

The reasons behind the heightened prevalence of anxiety in these individuals are multifaceted. One key component is the sensory processing differences commonly found in autism, which can make everyday sensory experiences overwhelming, thereby triggering anxiety. In addition, social communication challenges can lead to misunderstandings and social isolation, fueling further feelings of anxiety and stress.

For autistic young people who are more aware of their differences, this can lead to increased self-consciousness and anxiety in social situations. Their self-awareness, coupled with a desire to fit in and navigate complex social dynamics, can create a more consistent state of anxiety, especially in unfamiliar or highly social environments.

How Anxiety Can Be Treated

Treatment and support for anxiety in autistic individuals requires an individualized approach that considers the unique ways autism influences anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often effective, as it helps in identifying and challenging anxiety-inducing thought patterns. However, for some with autism, this therapy might need to be adapted to accommodate differences in processing and communication.

Strategies that focus on building social skills and coping mechanisms can also be beneficial. This includes teaching relaxation techniques, providing a structured environment, and encouraging participation in activities that promote confidence and self-esteem. Improving an autistic young adult’s ability to read subtle social cues and directly teaching ways to connect with others can make a substantial impact on anxiety in social situations.

The relationship between anxiety and autism is complex but essential to understand. By viewing how they connect, you can play a pivotal role in helping young adults manage their anxiety, harness their strengths, and lead fulfilling lives.

Gersh Experience offers its residents and day program participants the chance to hone their social and life skills in a nurturing environment to enable them to transition smoothly into adulthood. Participants leave the program with more confidence and reduced anxiety about their next steps. For more information on this one-of-a-kind program, reach out here.


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