Autism and Anxiety – The Shapes of Fear

Image3Does your child withdraw into his own world at times? Or get upset by changes in his routine or environment?  Is he reluctant to try anything new?  Have routines that simply ‘have to be done’ often in a specific order?   Or is she a ‘collector’ – filling her pockets, her room or even the whole house with the things she is interested in?

Not everyone shares my view but I believe that such universal reactions to fear and anxiety are part and parcel of the Autism Spectrum and are indicative of the great stress that such children live with on a daily basis: signs which, because they tend to become an integral part of the child’s life, should perhaps be termed ‘autisms.’

Let’s explore each one in more detail.


* Withdrawal is the child’s way of protecting himself from a confusing and terrifying world. While some children will physically remove themselves from a situation others simply ‘disappear on the spot’ – retreating into their own world and ignoring or excluding anything that might trigger their anxiety.  At such times they often appear deaf and blind to the things going on around them and that in turn will severely limit their social interaction, the development of social skills and even speech.

* Routine is extremely important as it provides some constants in a perplexing and confusing world. Reactions to change are very individual with one child becoming distressed by apparently small things like an item that is out of a place whilst ignoring larger changes and another doing exactly the reverse.

* Curiosity. Such children generally find new activities/places frightening and that can inhibit their natural instinct to explore and play. Children who do show curiosity often tend to direct it towards objects rather than people – perhaps because people seem more unpredictable.

* Obsessions and compulsions. Such automatic behaviors begin as a way to help the child shut the world out, for focusing attention on them helps keep anxiety at bay, but eventually those behaviors tend to ‘take over.’ Obsessive and compulsive behaviors may include:

– Repetitive behaviors like spinning things, flicking a bit of string repetitively or lining toys up in rows.  – Doing specific actions a particular number of times (and even ‘having’ to begin again if the process is interrupted before it is complete).

– The compulsive collecting of particular toys/CD’s etc.

– A preoccupation with a particular subject that he talks about repetitively.

NB Some children also use ‘self-stimulatory behavior’ (stimming) so that they may rock back and forth to soothe and calm themselves.  Even so it is likely that some stimming is actually related directly to the sensory differences.

Other effects:

* Physical effects include:

– interfering with the digestive process – which can cause severe stomach pains during or after meals.

– a weakened immune system

– vitamin and mineral deficiencies (which is why mega-doses of such things can sometimes be of benefit).

It also:

–  Interferes with short-term memory (although long-term memory may be brilliant).

–  Interferes with the ability to concentrate and learn.

– Causes panic attacks.  Those can result in any of the following reactions:

– The child may become ‘frozen with fear’ and be totally unable to do anything (even something nice like eating a cake).

– Fight or flight – he may suddenly ‘attack’ himself or another person or run away from a situation.

NB Panic attacks often result from acute anxiety but can also be caused by sensory or emotional overload or simply by too much direct attention (another area to explore).

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Top Tips

* Alleviating the sensory differences will reduce the child’s anxiety.

* Introduce new activities gradually and with care, even if you consider them pleasurable yourself.

* Try to ignore stereotyped behaviors unless they are anti-social. If it is very difficult to cope with (e.g. spitting), establish clear guidelines and try to limit it to a certain place.

* Try to keep the number of special objects acquired within reasonable limits.

* DO NOT punish him by taking those ‘special objects’ away as that will only increase his stress and could lead to unnecessary tantrums.

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One Response

  1. Dawn May 26, 2015