Autistic people are often anxious. If you have ever been around an autistic person when they are overloaded, you will know that the overload brings anxiety with it as the autistic person cannot cope with something going on in their environment that they are expected to process. If you are the parent or caregiver of an autistic child, then you may have wondered if your child’s mood and anxiety levels are linked with their Autism Spectrum Disorder. The short answer to this question is yes. However, in this article, we will discuss the longer answer of why your child’s anxiety levels and Autism Spectrum Disorder are linked.
Anxiety and Overwhelm
One of the features of autism is a difficulty in processing information. Unfortunately, the world today tends to be full of information overload, and things which might not bother a non autistic person will most assuredly cause problems for a person with autism. For example, most people are not bothered by large crowds. However, a sufficient crowd can leave a person with an autism spectrum disorder overwhelmed and anxious. This excessive stress becomes extremely difficult for autistic people to cope with at times. When too many stimuli are thrown at a person with autism at once, especially if the stimuli are new, they may experience what is known as sensory overload. They may go nonverbal, feel overwhelmed, cry and try to get away from the stimuli that are causing the problem. With this sensory overload comes anxiety as they no longer feel as if they are in control of their environment and prolonged stress can actually diminish their ability to cope until the stressors resolve themselves.
Meeting social expectations can also lead to anxiety or depression for the the person with autism especially if they are a teenager when mood swings are common in most people. They may feel increased pressure to fit in if they attend a public school or are taught in classes with their non autistic peers. They may try to force themselves to make eye contact which studies have shown can cause a fight or flight response in the autistic brain. They may also hide any special interests that they have, especially if those interests are not ones that are considered age-appropriate for their stage of life. Further, they then may push themselves beyond the point of overwhelm to try to deal with the stress of fitting in in a non autistic world.
As if all of that is not enough, these individuals may have methods of self-expression that are not universally understood. For example, an autistic person may bounce or flap their hands when excited. Society takes this as a sign of developmental disorder or deviance and especially if the person with the ASD is a teenager, their peers may shun and ostracize them, leaving them feeling isolated, depressed and anxious.
Recognizing Emotions In Others
Another necessary component of fitting in successfully in society is the person’s ability to read the facial expressions of others for subtle social cues. People with autism have a lot of problems in this area due to the lack of development in an area of the brain used for processing facial expressions. . They can usually understand the stronger emotions showing on a person’s face, but more subtle emotions are more difficult for them to process. Due to misunderstanding the proper social cues, the person with autism may react inappropriately to the situation, though most people learn to figure out the context in other ways. Misinterpreting the situation can lead to a fear of social interaction or anxiety that they are somehow socializing improperly. The increased anxiety and depression can make them much more reluctant to socialize which then leads into a vicious cycle of wanting to reach out, not knowing how and having more and more anxiety and depression piling on.
There are a large number of ways that an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and a person’s mood and anxiety levels can connect. People with autism may have problems fitting in and expressing themselves in ways society deems acceptable. They may also find new situations, crowds and changes to their environment to be overloading and a large cause of anxiety. However, despite these connections, the situation is not hopeless. People with autism can learn valuable coping skills which they can use to fend off the anxiety and depression they may face as well as curbing the problems which caused the anxiety and depression in the first place. With some support and the help of coping mechanisms and possibly therapy, a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder can lead a happy and fulfilling life.