There are many disorders which have anxiety as a comorbid condition including depression, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Today I am going to be talking about the last disorder mentioned on my list and that is the association between anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorders. April is Autism Awareness Month and so I thought this would be a great opportunity to share my personal perspectives as the mother of a child who has both autism and anxiety related issues.
There are many studies out there to show that a high percentage of children and adults with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (considered to be a high functioning form of autism) suffer from anxiety related disorders. In one report entitled, “Research: Anxiety Disorders in Persons with Developmental Disabilities: Empirically Informed Diagnosis and Treatment” the authors state that anxiety disorders are common for people with developmental disabilities including autism but they may not be diagnosed and treated as often as for those people without developmental disabilities. They go on to say that people with autism may suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, phobias, and other anxiety related disorders at much higher rates than the general population.
But the problem is that identification and treatment of anxiety for persons on the autism spectrum may be difficult because some of the symptoms of autism may obscure the anxiety symptoms. Things like difficulties in communication and behavioral problems may make it difficult to see that the individual with autism may also have an underlying anxiety disorder.I know about these difficulties in assessing anxiety in a person with autism as I have experienced this with my own son, Max.
One of the first memories I have about Max’s anxiety was when we visited a carousel for the first time. He was about three years old and was yet to be diagnosed with autism. We wanted to take him on a carousel ride at an amusement park. It seemed the most mild and non-frightening (to us at least) ride that we could think of to take him on. Most children are either delighted or even bored by the prospect of riding on a merry-go-round. But not Max. Max was immediately terrified. As we tried to board the ride he screamed and bucked like a little colt ready to run. He wanted no parts of the carousel. This was one of his first phobic reactions and it was certainly not the last. Max would grow to develop many phobias over time. I was puzzled by his reaction at first, but as I learned more about both anxiety and autism I began to understand some of my son’s responses to his environment.
After Max was diagnosed with autism, I began to research about his disorder. One of the primary symptoms of autism can be a problem with regulating and processing sensory information. Many children who are on the autism spectrum will have something called “Sensory Integration Disorder.” What this means in everyday language is that some ASD children and adults can have a wide range of variability to how they react to sound, touch, taste, smell, and visual stimuli in their environment. For example people who are not on the autism spectrum or who do not have Sensory Integration Disorder (SID) may be able to tolerate the sound of a garbage truck, car horn, or leaf blower. But for the child or adult with SID, the sound may be processed as much louder than it really is. It may be perceived as so loud as to be painful. The person with SID may react to such stimuli by covering their ears, crying, or running away. I began to understand why my son would scream or cry or attempt to escape when he would hear sounds like a hair dryer, vacuum cleaner, or even carousel music. He was frightened.