Uncovering the Truth About Autism and Anxiety

What Understanding Anxiety Means for Treating Autism

Autism and Anxiety are Linked—But Not in the Way Most People Assume

Two recent studies published this month indicate that anxiety heightens the threat response and makes social communication more difficult for children with autism, rather than the other way around.

While it is well-known that anxiety is common among those with autism, and while there are multiple studies showing that autism and anxiety are connected, there are very few studies that provide a framework, exploring and clarifying the relationship between the two.

In the past, popular opinion has concluded that the communication and social deficits associated with autism contribute to and worsen anxiety, particularly performance anxiety. This latest study suggests that, in fact, anxiety exists independently of autism symptoms and may itself be a contributing factor.

What Understanding Anxiety Means for Treating Autism

Both of these studies looked at anxiety in children with autism separately from covariants, such as communication ability, social skills, age, daily living skills, and overall autism severity. What the researchers found surprised them—children with severe social communication issues and less developed social skills are not any more likely to have anxiety than children with mild communication deficits. However, children with autism who also have anxiety are much more likely to develop severe social communication issues later in life.

The biggest takeaway, and the most promising finding, from these study results is that addressing anxiety through therapy and through modifying the environment may also help treat the core behavioral and social concerns associated with autism.

How We Address Anxiety at Springbrook  

At the Springbrook Autism Program, we use evidence-based treatments and therapies to address the holistic needs of each individual child. Often, children with an autism diagnosis have multiple comorbid conditions that complicate diagnosis and treatment, including severe social anxiety.

Here are some of the main ways we help children with autism and their families cope with anxiety:

Environmental and Personal Modifications. From environmental modifications such as sensory-friendly full-spectrum lights throughout our center to personal modifications such as weighted blankets and pressure vests, we use all the tools at our disposal to help children with autism address their anxiety. We even have sensory-friendly Dayrooms and Sensory Rooms for children with a severe anxiety associated with the autism diagnosis.

Pharmaceutical Intervention. While there’s no magic bullet that can “cure” anxiety with one pill, determining the proper pharmaceuticals to address and minimize anxiety can be exactly what the child with autism needs in order to become a more successful communicator. Our staff includes a fully licensed child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in prescribing medications for psychiatric, emotional, and physical issues related to autism.

Focused Group Therapy. After the first full week in our program, each child receives a full developmental profile, which evaluates the child in over 400 areas. In these profiles, we focus not only on behavioral issues and deficits, but also on the skills and abilities each child possesses. This profile forms the basis for all of our treatments and therapies for autism, including group therapy—where we include students with like abilities and deficits in the same group for more focused treatment.  

Occupational and Recreational Therapy. Many children with autism are either over-stimulated or under-stimulated by their environment and daily routines, which can exacerbate anxiety. Our therapy programs include a full daily schedule—and we also try to make it fun! Each day includes some form of physical activity and sensory integration, which could be anything from a game of baseball to a trip to our lake to fish or aquatic therapy. We spend a lot of time in our pool!

Our goal with every treatment and therapy that we offer is to remove the barriers to success for children with autism. We have long understood that you can’t ever treat autism in a vacuum—an effective autism program must address physical, mental, and emotional concerns as well.

If your child and your family need help addressing any of the destructive or maladaptive behaviors associated with autism, Contact Us at (864) 834-8013. The caring and committed staff members at Springbrook are experts at understanding the root causes of behavior.