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Anxiety in Children with Autism

Although anxiety is not considered a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), over 40% of young people with autism suffer from elevated anxiety at a clinical level, making it one of the most common comorbid conditions, or condition experienced alongside ASD.

Expression of Anxiety: Is Separation Anxiety a Sign of Autism?

Separation anxiety is common for both typically developing children and children with autism. Even common forms of anxiety, however, can manifest differently in children with autism. Nonverbal children, for example, may engage in physical behaviors to express themselves, such as tearing paper or clothing.

Types of Anxiety in Children with Autism

Common conditions associated with anxiety for children with autism include:

  • Phobias, or intense, irrational fears of specific things. In children with autism, such phobias can arise from heightened sensory stimulation such as loud noises (for example, fear of popping balloons at an early age can develop into a phobia). Typical phobias like the dark or needles can also develop in children with autism.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. While repetitive behaviors are typical in autism, repetitive behaviors underpinned by OCD are coping mechanisms to alleviate anxiety.
  • Atypical anxiety that does not fit an existing diagnosis. Children with autism may experience intense anxiety as a result of issues with emotional flexibility. For example, a change in routine or environment may trigger episodes of anxiety.
  • Social anxiety, or the fear of new people and social situations. While social anxiety is very common in children with autism, in the case of high functioning autism, it may increase as the child ages and becomes more aware of their own difficulties surrounding social interaction.
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