Beverly’s son, Max, had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder the year before he started school, but had been “for the most part, unlike any other kids (with autism) we’d known,” she explains. “He was verbal pretty early, actually. My husband and I didn’t grow up in affectionate households, so we didn’t imagine our family to be, you know, huggy and that kind of thing, but Max… he’s always been that way.”
But what Max did display, however, were other symptoms, including obsession with particular interests and nervous behaviors.
And then there was his anxiety.
Beverly was called for a private parent-teacher session, during which Max’s teacher kindly shared with Beverly and her husband, Ryan, that Max had been banging his head against his desk with fair regularity.
“His teacher assessed that he might have been feeling anxious with the new environment and was banging his head out of frustration,” says Beverly.
As it turns out, it’s not atypical for kids with autism to have bouts of anxiety or nervousness; they actually express anxiety in much the same ways as typically developing children do.
Kids with autism may be triggered by a number of things – changes in routine, separation from their parents, social events or increasing responsibilities, like homework or keeping up with extracurricular activities. Social anxiety isn’t uncommon in typically developing kids either but it can certainly appear more commonly in kids on the spectrum.
For kids on the spectrum who experience anxiety, they might feel extreme tension, pounding heart, muscle pain, sweating, stomach pain or headaches. To ease these symptoms, they might turn to repetitive behaviors that give them comfort, like tearing at their clothes, or in the case of Max, banging their heads against something. It might seem counterintuitive to some of us – after all, why would we bring even more discomfort to ourselves when we’re already uncomfortable – but kids with autism find some relief when they’re engaging in something that they can, at the very least, feel like they control.
Because kids with autism can have challenges with communicating verbally, physical behaviors are often the way they share that they’re having trouble and need help or attention.
So what can we do as parents or caregivers when we can see that our autistic child is feeling anxious and needs help?
First, try to find out what’s causing your child distress. Do it with your child. When your child can identify the root of what they’re worried about or scared of, you – and even better, in partnership with your child’s therapist – can logically challenge these thoughts. That’s cognitive behavioral therapy.
Another tip is engaging in exposure therapy, which is best done with a professional at first. This is slowly exposing your child to what they’re worried about without leaving them to feel like they’re being thrown to the wolves. Here’s an example: if your child is worried about traveling because they won’t be sleeping in their own bed, try tucking them in one night in another room in the house. If they can’t last the whole night, try letting them stay there for just 15 minutes the first night, and then maybe an hour the next. This affirms to your child that they’re safe and that there’s nothing wrong, nothing bad about sleeping in another room. This provides evidence that everything is going to be okay and that they’re safe.