Meghan Barlow & Associates

Ask the Expert: Heather Dukes-Murray, PhD

Anxiety, Autism, and Interventions: Playing to One’s Strengths and Supports

Anxiety can be a part of daily life for many individuals with autism. Rates of clinically significant comorbid anxiety in autism have varied widely, with some estimates as high as 40%. Regardless of verbal abilities, cognitive abilities, or developmental level, signs of anxiety present similarly. Stress reactions termed “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” are common. “Fight” can look like irritability, meltdowns, explosions, aggression, or yelling. “Flight” can look like leaving a situation, eloping, or refusing to go to a stressful environment. “Freeze” can look like non-responding, putting one’s head down, or ignoring others. All of these are signs of high anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective therapeutic techniques to reduce anxiety. However, CBT can be a verbal-heavy, somewhat abstract intervention. It is important to identify your child’s learning strengths and weaknesses, then adapt the CBT techniques to fit your child.

Know triggers (and make sure your child and those involved with your child know them too!) – For a week, document when your child demonstrates anxiety symptoms, what happened before and during, what you and your child each did. Look for patterns and minimize anxiety triggers. Ideally, work with your child and their therapist to make a plan to overcome the anxiety associated with that trigger. For example, if your child is anxious in social situations and large groups are a trigger, work with a therapist to build a plan to engage in increasingly social situations while practicing coping skills. Diffusing a trigger is empowering and helps build confidence to take on other anxiety triggers.
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