Understanding Anxiety in Autism: Key Insights and Disorders

Understanding Anxiety in Autism

It is estimated that 50% of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will receive a secondary diagnosis. Among these, anxiety is one of the most prevalent comorbidities, despite not being a part of the core ASD diagnosis.

Research has indicated that autistic individuals are more likely to experience anxiety, with a recent study finding that up to 39% of children with ASD have at least one anxiety disorder.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a neurological response in which the emotional center of the brain, upon perceiving a threat, triggers the body’s defense mechanisms. This results in feelings of worry, fear, or loss of control. Often these threats are not rational, as the prefrontal cortex, responsible for logic and reason, is overpowered by the emotional centres of the brain. A few types of anxiety disorders and their signs:

Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness and anxiousness when they begin to impede a person’s ability to complete everyday tasks. Here are some common anxiety disorders and their signs:

  1. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – Characterised by intense worry about everyday activities such as obsessing over whether an alarm was set and then not being able to move forward without checking.
  2. Panic Disorder – Involves frequent and reoccurring panic attacks.
  3. Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – Marked by active avoidance of social interactions and intense feelings of fear related to interactions with other people within a social setting.
  4. Separation Anxiety Disorder – excessive fear of being separated from those to whom a child is attached. This can be a parent or even a friend or teacher. Separation Anxiety can manifest as the inability to complete tasks without consistent support and/or the presence of a particular person.
  5. Selective Mutism – When children do not speak in social situations where there is an expectation of verbal communication such as during school time, and only choose to speak at home or with a select few individuals.

Understanding the nuances of anxiety is crucial for providing the appropriate support and interventions needed. Recognizing the signs of different anxiety disorders can help caregivers, educators, and healthcare providers address the unique needs of autistic individuals more effectively.

Shannon Henry