Anxiety is a common co-occurring condition in adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Studies show that up to 50% of autistic adults have an anxiety disorder – twice that of neurotypical adults . Symptoms can include restlessness, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, headaches, stomachaches and even increased heartrate and rapid breathing. But even things like withdrawal, nail biting, obsessive thoughts and an inability to eat can be signs of anxiety .
What makes identification tricky is that traits that characterize autism, including social deficits and restricted interests, can mimic symptoms of anxiety. Compounding the problem is that diagnostics to screen for anxiety were developed for neurotypical people, leaving many autistic people misunderstood and/or under- or misdiagnosed. The risk: untreated and poorly treated anxiety in autistic adults is known to lead to depression, aggression and even self-harm .
One possible solution: autism-specific anxiety management. Recently neuroscientists discovered structural differences in autistic people’s amygdala, the brain’s emotion and fear center, that indicate anxiety is different for those with ASD than it is for everyone else. It only makes sense then that management would be different for autistic people .
Unfortunately, few studies have been conducted on the treatment of anxiety in autistic adults, and fewer useful conclusions around best practices have been made. However, some common treatment options include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), medication, mindfulness-based therapy, and skills training.
CBT is a common type of talk psychotherapy. Working with a therapist you work to identify negative thinking so you can view situations differently and respond to them more effectively. CBT is not adapted for autism though many autistic people try it .
Medication can also be helpful in managing anxiety in individuals with ASD. However, when treating ASD in adults, medication alone is unlikely to mitigate the symptoms of concern. Other interventions are typically needed and may include skills training, environmental changes, behavioral techniques, and the use of sensory inputs.
Mindfulness-based therapy may also be helpful in managing anxiety in individuals with ASD. In mindfulness treatment, people may learn special breathing and relaxation techniques, meditation, and other exercises .
Skills training can also be helpful in managing anxiety in individuals with ASD. This can include teaching individuals coping strategies such as squeezing stress balls, counting to ten, meditating, and exercise .
It’s important to note that there is not a one size fits all strategy to manage anxiety in individuals with ASD. It’s important to explore different options and find what works best for each individual.
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