Autism and anxiety are commonly intertwined. In this blog on how autistic adults experience anxiety, we’ll look at the following:
- Do autistic adults suffer from anxiety?
- Is this type of anxiety different from people without autism?
- What causes anxiety in autistic adults?
- What are the signs to look for in an autistic adult with anxiety?
- What helps adults with autism and anxiety?
Do Autistic Adults Suffer From Anxiety?
Anxiety is common within the autism community. A National Library of Medicine (NLM) study diagnosed anxiety disorders in 20.1% of adults with ASD. Another collection of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research data suggests that 50% of adults with autism meet the criteria for a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Living with ASD means living with particular challenges that can increase anxious emotions in a person—for example, difficulty with social skills, communication, and learning. We’ll look at anxiety in autistic individuals in more depth below.
Is This Type Of Anxiety Different From People Without Autism?
Anxiety in adults with autism looks different than in their neurotypical peers. Anxiety is widespread among people with autism, and triggers may occur in situations that aren’t usually deemed stressful or anxiety-inducing.
There are several types of anxiety disorders. For individuals with autism, specifically children, the most common are specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and social anxiety disorder.
Phobias in autistic people occur due to heightened sensory inputs (loud noises, touching certain materials, strong smells, etc.). These phobias typically develop in childhood and may carry into adulthood as irrational fears.
For example, an autistic child may experience anxiety inducing sensory overload from an intense thunderstorm and become fearful during future storms. Things associated with negative experiences can also become phobias, such as darkness or flashing lights.
Studies indicate that as much as 17 percent of autistic people have OCD. OCD is characterized by obsessive, compulsive behaviors, including a fear of germs, excessive cleaning and handwashing, ordering and arranging items, repetition of words and thoughts, and hoarding, among other symptoms. These urges can significantly impact an individual’s daily life and might require intervention.
Not all autistic individuals have a social anxiety disorder, but it’s quite common. Research indicates that social anxiety is as high as 50% in people with autism. Due to the differences in thinking and behavior, autistic people may find it difficult to know how to interact with others or pick up on essential conversation variables such as social cues, sarcasm, and different types of humor.
What Causes Anxiety In Autistic Adults?
Anxiety comes from an individual’s environment and genetics due to an imbalance in brain chemistry. For people with autism, anxiety can develop from the unique experiences that come with their developmental disability.
Because individuals with ASD think differently than their neurotypical peers, this can amplify negative experiences such as bullying and isolation and struggles with social and personal relationships.
A survey from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University found that of 1,200 parents with children with ASD, 63 percent of the children experienced bullying. Bullying is more common in childhood, but these experiences can carry into and impact adulthood, affecting mental health long-term.
In the same way, adults with autism may continue struggling to build solid relationships and friend groups. The general population understands the difficulty of making friends in adulthood. Having social and cognitive differences on top of emerging into adulthood makes it all the more challenging.
In everyday situations that can conjure some anxiety, those with cognitive and developmental disabilities may feel anxious emotions in more severity. For example, social situations, finding a job, independent living, and dating can be more difficult for an adult with autism.
What Are The Signs To Look For In An Autistic Adult With Anxiety?
Anxiety can manifest similarly in autistic and neuro-typical adults but may occur at less expected times and in greater severity.
Symptoms of autism and anxiety in adults include:
- Irritability or being “wound up”
- Sudden meltdowns and outbursts
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Sleeping issues (trouble falling or staying asleep)
- Frequent nightmares and night terrors
- Obsessive thinking
- Difficulty concentrating and thinking
- Decrease in learning progress
- Avoiding social situations and leaving the house
- Headaches, muscle aches, and stomach aches
- Trembling, sweating, and hyperventilating
What Helps Adults With Autism And Anxiety?
Thanks to the recent surge in autism studies that have broadened understanding of the unique challenges ASD individuals face, various anxiety treatments have become available. Different techniques will be more efficient in treating anxiety symptoms; each individual must find the best fit.
The most common mental health supports available to adults with autism include:
- ABA Therapy
- Occupational Therapy
- Family Therapy
- Independent Living Skills Training
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Educational and School-Based Therapies
- Nutritional Therapy
- Speech Therapy
- Communication Training
While professional help is essential to treat anxiety, there are numerous ways that you can support your loved one in dealing with the negative symptoms of anxiety.
Consider the following practices to encourage healthy mental health:
Exercise and activities that get the blood pumping release feel-good endorphins. Activities as simple as walks and swimming enhance well-being and reduce anxiety. These also help with memory and quality of sleep.
Unfortunately, trouble sleeping is a common symptom of anxiety disorders. While it may take time, finding little ways to aid sleep makes a huge difference in the long run. Good sleep is a must for a balanced body and mind.
Everyone has different preferences when they sleep, but some variations may include the following:
- Blackout curtains or a night light
- White noise machine, music, or earplugs
- Limiting screen time before bed
- Soothing baths
- Adjusting the temperature of the room
- Changing out pillows, blankets, and sheets
Adult life gets busy, and built-up tension can happen to the best of us. Encouraging adults with autism to take breaks and relax offers a way to reduce anxiety and balance daily life. Exercises like listening to calming music, watching a favorite movie, and yoga are excellent options.
Individuals with autism tend to be selective with their food preferences, making it difficult to get a balanced diet. Encouraging them to try new food and more nutritious choices may be challenging. Yet, it can significantly improve mental health, especially if the individual reaches for unhealthy junk food.
Animals are a wonderful source of calm and happiness for many people. Emotional support animals for autism can significantly improve comfort levels and the ability to relax and have fun. Outside of owning a pet, adults with autism may find visiting zoos, aquariums, or local animal shelters enjoyable. Many studies show that dogs and cats can reduce stress and anxiety.
Hobbies and Special Interests
Individuals with autism tend to have specific topics and activities they enjoy. Incorporating these interests into games, events, and conversations can take their mind off anxious thoughts. Likewise, when we enjoy conversations with others, it’s a bonding experience, helping with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Published On: September 14, 2022
Updated on: September 27, 2023