Autism and Anxiety: Why Is My Child Always Afraid?

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Written by Shalev White

It can sometimes seem like your child is always on edge.  The smallest thing becomes something big to them, and it can be confusing to predict what will upset them.  You can see that they are in pain, nervous, anxious, or frustrated, but it can be difficult to figure out where all of that is coming from and how to resolve it.  You may even feel your own anxiety level rising around your child’s anxiety.  You know that Autism and anxiety are common, but what therapy do you do?  What medication do you try?  Then you wonder, “Am I a bad parent for even thinking about medication?”

Perspective of One Autistic Person

One of the first things I do when I wake up is go to the bathroom.  It’s a common thing that most people do.  There are many sensory issues in this first activity.  There’s the itchy bathroom rug, the cold seat that has too much of a temperature change for my skin, and all the light and sound that bounces off all the tile in the room.  I’m not fully awake yet and my head already feels full of sensory information.

Next, I go for coffee to try and wake up my brain.  I follow my routine for making coffee and use the same cup every morning.  It’s comforting.  I also have two young children, and they are busy dumping out toys on the hardwood floor, jumping, running, and screaming.  All these sounds take up all the space in my brain and I have to pause to remember which step I’m at in making the coffee.  The screams and high pitched noises that children make feel like they pierce my ears and hurt my eyes.

After I somehow get through my morning coffee, I now need to attempt getting dressed.  Now there’s the problems with tags that feel like wood stabbing my skin, stitches the scratch my sides, sewn in patterns that don’t bend, and materials that feel like wearing sand.  Depending on the morning, I may go for my standard clothing that I know will be fine, or may try some new ones that have been sitting in my closet, which means I may take clothes on and off multiple times to find something that works.

I’ve only described the beginning of my morning just to the point of  getting dressed.  Usually by this point, I’m already mildly frustrated, but I’m trying not to be because it’s only the morning.  These little things continue throughout the day and they build up until it seems like we overreact to a smaller event.  We can also feel anxious about many situations because we don’t know if it will be painful for us or how painful it will be.  Sometimes we handle situations better on certain days and not so well on others.  We may not even understand why this happens, and that can be very frustrating.  The anxiety not knowing how our brain will respond to things can be overwhelming at times.

Perspective of One Autistic Parent

I like to take note of when my son seems more anxious and try to do things to make his day easier.  When he is anxious, he will ask me more questions throughout the day.  He also has specific shows he quotes (echolalia/scripting).  He may seem more aggressive as well.  These are all signs to me that he is feeling anxious and on edge.

When I notice these things, I will suggest some things that I know he likes and that are calming to him.  He likes what he calls his “Alone Time Space”.  This is just a place under the counter in the kitchen where he can go hide.  I also made it so that there’s a “blanket door” that closes off the space.  He can go in there with a blanket and pillow and give his brain a little break.  I let him come out on his own when he’s done.

Photo by Shalev White:  Depicts the “Alone Time Space” mentioned in the blog.

I may also encourage stim play.  For him, this is a geometric puzzle that he can organize into a couple different patterns over and over again, or sorting the blocks by color.  Depending on his mood he may enjoy spinning on the floor.  So I’ll move things out of the way so that he can spin.  Sometimes he wants me to join in these activities and sometimes not.  I let him decide what he wants and what would be helpful to him.

How You Can Help Your Autistic Child With Their Anxiety

Graphic created by Shalev White “How You Can Help Your Autistic Child With Their Anxiety”

Because I understand how much anxiety sensory issues cause, I’ve been able to help my son find ways to express it and work through it.

  • Embracing Non-Verbal Communication

Sometimes words are not as easy when we are upset.  So providing other forms of communication, even for Autistics who are verbal, can be very helpful.  When my son is upset, he has a card that he can hand to us to say that he is upset and needs some space.  I also use some cards to let my husband know my general feelings so that I don’t have to use words.  Non-verbal communication can be sign language, ACC devices, PECs system, or phone apps.  Finding a simple way to just communicate that we are unhappy without necessarily explaining why, can be very helpful.

  • Create a Sensory Room or Sensory Corner

You may have heard of these, but you may not understand their importance.  These sensory spaces allow us to refocus and regroup.  Sensory spaces can look different depending on the needs of the individual.  This is where my son’s “Alone Time Space” that I mentioned earlier comes in.  This little space allows him to have a very low sensory input for a while and give his brain a break.  You don’t need a separate room.  We’ve created temporary spaces when we’ve been at other people’s houses using blankets.  Some sensory spaces have more stimulatory items in them such as playing with water or kinetic sand.

  • Doing Things in Smaller Steps

It can be stressful to not know if something is going to happen in this new activity that is going to be painful to our sensory systems.  Then if we do come across something that is painful, then we need to find a way to accommodate that before we can move on to the other steps.  Doing things in smaller steps has helped my son learn things much faster, and I was able to figure out what parts I needed to modify for him.  For example, he had burned his hand when trying to wash them because he only turned on the hot water.  He was confused with the concept of turning on both knobs at the same time.  So I labeled the knobs with blue and red and taught him to wash with the “blue water” before he could learn to add in some of the “red water”.

  • Using Visuals

Many of us are visual thinkers.  Allowing us to watch a video or read a book about an upcoming situation is very helpful.  This allows us to observe the situation rather than needing to experience it.  That is much less stressful.  We may even be able to see potential problems, or see that it’s not a problem.

  • Allowing Us to Stim

As long as we are not doing anything harmful, please allow us to stim when we need to.  My son loves stim play.  I find visual stims very relaxing.  Some other Autistics have expressed this as well.  This can look like staring at a bubble timer, candle, or something sparkly.  However, you should let your Autistic child stim in whatever manner they find comforting.

Testing Autistalline Glasses:

(Disclaimer I was given an tester pair of Autistalline, Autistic Sensory Overload glasses. They are for investigational purposes only and are not available for commercial use since they are not yet FDA-Approved. I write about my experiences with the glasses and all experiences and opinions of Autistalline Glasses are my own. I am not paid to test the glasses on me or my son. I am compensated for writing blogs and producing content. All contents in the blogs I write and post on this website are actual recounts of my daily experiences as an individual diagnosed with Autism. Each experience will vary from person to person with Autism. Any content contained in this blog is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, care and treatment. Please consult your healthcare provider.)

One of the first things I noticed when I wore the Autistalline glasses was a reduction in constant low level anxiety, which I never knew was there.  I didn’t understand that I had this baseline of mild anxiety, because to me that was my normal state of being.  It felt like fully breathing for the first time.  I have a hard time describing this experience, because I was noticing that something was gone which I never noticed was there in the first place.

I felt calmer and lighter while wearing them.  I think this reduction in overall anxiety was due to the reduction in sensory overload.  Since I wasn’t having all of those little things constantly upsetting and overloading my brain, I felt calmer and less on edge than I normally would.

Help Us Get These Glasses Made

We desire to get these glasses into the hands of every Autistic person around the world.  So that they are free to enjoy life and do the things they love without the pain and sensory overload that happens every day for Autistic people.  Please go here to support our campaign and share it with others.

All contents in this blog and on the Website are for general informational purposes only and are not a substitute for any medical advice, diagnosis, care, and treatment. Always consult with your qualified medical or professional practitioner or health care provider. Please do not disregard the professional advice or delay in seeking medical help by reason of the information obtained on this blog. Reliance on any information provided on this website is solely at your own risk.

The opinions and narratives expressed by the bloggers and by those who comment on the blogs on this website are their own and may be different and relative to other persons, and do not reflect the opinions of Autistalline LLC. The information posted on any blog is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please always seek consultation with your treating physician or psychologist.

The use of the Autistalline Autistic Sensory Overload Glasses is for INVESTIGATIONAL PURPOSES and is NOT AVAILABLE FOR COMMERCIAL USE AS THIS DEVICE IS NOT YET FDA-APPROVED. Further, Autistalline LLC does not claim that the use thereof as depicted in the videos is reliable, safe, or effective for uses being investigated. Autistalline Autistic Sensory Overload Glasses carry a risk of failure and adverse consequences.

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