By: Sabiha Toni
Anxiety is a universal struggle, whether it is about final exams, tax season, or failing relationships. However, the stress that most of us encounter and cope with may seem magnitudes more stressful for a person with an anxiety disorder. In the case of a disorder, sudden panic attacks and breathing difficulties can replace the intermittent nail biting and hair pulling that many of us are familiar with. Anxiety is a common response to high stress environments, and it is no different for individuals on the Spectrum. In fact, people with ASDs may be even more prone to suffering from constant worrying, social fears, or specific phobias than their counterparts without spectrum disorders.
The presence of two or more disorders in an individual, such as Autistic Spectrum and anxiety disorders, is known as comorbidity. Though there are multiple comorbid disorders associated with ASDs, anxiety disorders seem to be one of the most prominent. Studies have shown that individuals who have ASDs are more likely to develop anxiety disorders than those who do not. The prevalence of anxiety disorders among children and adolescents on the Spectrum is about 40%—a significantly higher number than the percentage among children and teens without ASDs, which ranges from 2.2 – 27% (van Steensel 2011).
The most common disorder is social phobias, which make up 30% of all anxiety disorders affecting ASD individuals (van Steensel 2011). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is second in prevalence, followed by General Anxiety Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder. It can be difficult, however, to diagnose children on the Spectrum with anxiety disorders because of its reliance on self-disclosure. Often, people with ASDs have trouble expressing personal and emotional concerns. There are other symptoms that may point towards a disorder, such as compulsions and motor or muscle tics, but diagnosis is much more effective if individuals are able to self-report.
Once comorbid conditions are identified and diagnosed, friends and relatives should look into treatment options for both disorders. Therapy can help reduce the effects of anxiety disorders as well as ASDs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a method used to help confront and manage anxiety-inducing situations, as well as encourage positive thinking and relaxation. Therapies such as exposing a person to phobias or uncomfortable circumstances in a stepwise manner can help them deal with anxiety in appropriate and healthy ways (Merrill 2014).
It is important to note that anxiety disorders and ASDs are long-term conditions that require persistent treatment as well as supportive and accommodating environments outside of therapy. Family and friends have a large role in providing an encouraging environment for an individual with ASD, and especially someone with comorbid disorders. The right combination of therapies and treatments can quell the effects of both disorders to some degree, and ultimately allow people on the Spectrum to cope suitably with their struggles.
Merrill, A. Anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Indiana Institute of Disability and Community. 2014. http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/?pageId=3616
Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Charman, T., et al. Psychiatric Disorders in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Associated Factors in a Population-Derived Sample. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc Psychiatry. Aug 2008. 47:8.
Van Steensel, F.J.A., Bogels, S.M., Perrin, S. Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents with Autistic Spectrum Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. Sep 2011; 14(3): 302-317