When thinking about autism and all that is involved with it and other similar neurodevelopmental disorders, we sometimes overlook the possibility of co-occurring conditions like anxiety. All too often I hear responses about a child’s odd behaviors in relation to him or her “being naughty,” or that “it is just his or her autism”; but, in many instances, that is not the case. Anxiety is a complex disorder that can manifest itself in many different ways, especially in children and adults affected by autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. My goal over the next couple of months is to share with you information related to anxiety, and how you can help your child or student who may be affected by it.
Neurotypical individuals affected by anxiety on a day to day basis have varying symptoms. We often see individuals who perspire or use avoidance techniques to escape or withdraw from what makes them anxious, like social settings and large events. Others deal with their anxiety in different ways, and can become excessively chatty or extremely quiet. Whether it be withdrawing, perspiration, or becoming excessively talkative, many individuals are able to cope somewhat with their anxiety. Children and adults with neurodevelopmental disorders also have ways of expressing their anxiety and attempting to cope with it. When thinking about your child or student, here are a few ways that they may express their anxiety:
- Increased self-stimulatory behaviors. Many individuals affected by autism and other neurological disorders will use self-stimulatory behaviors like rocking, flapping, hand flicking, and talking to themselves from time to time. Self-stimulatory behaviors are often static in nature, and are used by individuals to avoid situations that are too difficult for them to process and understand, as well as to deal with anxiety. When you see an individual begin using self-stimulatory behaviors or an increase in the behavior intensity, it may be helpful to ask yourself if this person is anxious and why.
- Odd intensity of verbalizations. Most individuals within society today use talking as a way to deal with anxiety. Individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders who have the ability to express themselves verbally often use talking as a way of dealing with anxiety, too. When you notice a drastic increase or decrease in communication, or an individual talking about odd sorts of things for a lengthy period of time, it may be a good indication that the individual is anxious.
- Acting out behaviors. When thinking about behaviors, it is important to look at “why” the behavior is occurring instead of just examining what the behavior is. When individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders become increasingly anxious internally, they often attempt to find ways to decrease their anxiety externally. A good analogy is to think about a pot of water that you are heating to the boiling point on the stove. An individual becoming increasingly more anxious is like the water getting hotter; and we are going to start to see things happening externally as well like increased talking, perspiration, and agitation that are like the bubbles in the heated water. At some point, the individual can no longer handle the level of anxiety that they are feeling, and thus acting out behaviors occur. We would consider this to be the “boiling point.” If you can examine your child or student’s behaviors and begin to notice when they are feeling anxious, you can often prevent the “boiling point” from happening by helping the individual reduce his or her anxiety.
- A need for control. Individuals affected by autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders often attempt to control the actions of others as well as materials in their surrounding environments. When we see an increase in the need for control, it may be a good indicator that the individual has become anxious. Is there a change coming up of which they are fearful? What other sorts of things in the environment could be causing the anxiety?
When examining the behaviors and actions of individuals affected by autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, it is important to examine whether or not the individual is affected by co-occurring conditions as well. All too often, we come across individuals who are affected by co-occurring anxiety issues that go undiagnosed. By examining the behaviors and actions of our children and students, we may find that the acting out behaviors are not because of his or her autism or neurodevelopmental disorder, but rather because the individual is extremely anxious and has reached the “boiling point.”