autistic anxiety

It’s great that as a society we are becoming more aware of mental health challenges and the impact they have on peoples lives. Words like depression, and anxiety are part of our conversations now, and the stigma around them is reducing. But there is still some misunderstanding about what they actually are, and even more so when we mention anxiety in neurodivergent people. 

Typically in a person who is recognised as having anxiety it is assumed that the anxiety is something unfounded- it arises from an irrational fear or worry that is blown out of proportion in the persons mind and results in unhelpful behaviours and coping mechanisms. Treatment and therapy for anxiety revolves around this belief.

However, for autistic people and those who experience significant sensory processing challenges (maybe for other neurodivergent people too, let me know in the comments if you experience this as well), the anxiety experienced is different.

It is not based on unreasonable thoughts that are coming from nowhere. It is based on things that we have experienced, have noticed as patterns, and that we do not wish to see repeated or to have to experience again.  This is a valid reason to experience stress and anxiety, and in these situations our anxiety serves a useful purpose, in that it helps to protect us from getting into situations that will cause us discomfit and distress….. if we are adults.

For example, if I go to the shops I will experience sensory overload to some degree. Many years of experience tells me this. If I know I need to go to the shops, but notice I feel particularly anxious about the thought of it, that is a fair indication that I am already experiencing a higher than usual amount of sensory stress that day, and probably means it would be best to avoid shopping if I don’t want to have to do a significant amount of self care and de-stressing afterward. As an adult I can choose to avoid the shops. If I am a child, my parents might make me go anyway, then wonder why I am “acting out”, “having a tantrum”. “being difficult”,  or “melting down” and get angry at me for my behaviour. Really, all I am doing is communicating my distress, but my parents and “autism experts” or professionals might label me as being dysfunctionally anxious and try to convince me through therapy that I don’t need to be, or put me on medication to manage it.

Just because parents and professionals don’t see the thing we experienced doesn’t mean it doesn’t exists. And just because they don’t experience the world the way we do doesn’t make our anxiety and reactions to certain situations or triggers unreasonable or worthy of being labelled as broken or dysfunctional.

Parents, professionals, helpers, friends…. please think about the diversity of experience that exists in people, and consider that when an autistic person behaves in ways you don’t understand, that there is always a valid reason behind that which you don’t understand yet. Please seek out the input of autistic adults when the child in your care seems distressed and you don’t know why. And please treat your autistic children with compassion when they are anxious. It is more than likely there is a very good explanation for it that they need your support to work through.

13 thoughts on “autistic anxiety

  1. How true this is! While I admit I’m a pessimist, my anxieties are based on things I have experienced and are not unfounded and unreasonable. It doesn’t ease my anxieties when people say it’s going to be ok. I know they are trying to comfort me but unfortunately, it doesn’t make me less anxious. I feel better if they just acknowledge my anxiety instead of telling me it’s going to be ok.

  2. I get both types of anxiety, but most often my anxiety is: “There’s a Bad Thing that happens maybe 2% of the time I Do The Thing, but it’s such a Bad Thing that the small probability is enough to make me go full-aversion. In this way, the basis of the anxiety is real, but my interpretation and reaction are “larger than necessary”.

  3. Great post. Most important message is ‘just because you can’t see what happened to cause the anxiety does not mean it didn’t happen’ Particularly for non speaking or limited communication actions must be ‘listened’ to. As a parent to a young autistic man who has suffered incredible trauma I think I feel his anxiety nearly as much as he does and the frustration of explaining to those who should know better. Thankfully a great (new) clinical team have listened and helped so much. Delighted to have you back Michelle.

  4. Good post. I would add that with my Child we do experience anxiety which is different to this in that he struggles with unfamiliar or new experiences. The issue is not learning through experience but not being able to anticipate why we are doing something or what will happen. When I push him out of his comfort zone it is due to a complex weighing up of costs v. benefits. Firstly does it have to happen e.g. health appts. Will he benefit? Will he enjoy once he understands it. Can I change anything to make it easier?
    If we went with avoidance of everything difficult at this stage it would be damaging. He will at some point be able to make his own choices but still too young.

  5. Hi-
    Great article. It’s frustrating that neurotypical people think all our behavior is irrational and should be corrected.

    I’m autistic and have a few other diagnoses- I used to think my sensory overload and anxiety were related to the other dx, but now I know I have autism, I figure they’re related to that. But my boyfriend, who is schizophrenic and not autistic, has sensory overload similar to autistic people. In fact, there’s research showing that schizophrenia and autism are genetically related. They’re actually really similar; that similarity is why he and I are able to understand each other so well. The diagnoses seem to only diverge in the nature and frequency of psychotic episodes.

    Before autism was a diagnosis, it was called “infantile schizophrenia”.

    Since you asked about other neurodiverse dx that had similar behavior, I thought I’d mention.

    Thank you for the article!

    1. Hi Elizabeth. We have other neurodivergences in my family and those family members experience anxiety similarly to me. My reading about neurodiergences like schizophrenia and bipolar lead me to think there is a common genetic link for them. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I know I have had a hard time understanding my autistic son’s anxiery about things I consider simple. I cringe when I think about how I sometimes react. Your post really helps reinforce the idea that I need to really listen to him and respect his concerns even when I don’t understand them.

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