Managing Social Anxiety in Teens with ASD

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of developmental disorders that affect communication. For teens with Asperger’s syndrome (AS) and high functioning autism, social communication difficulties often lead to anxiety. According to Tony Attwood, a leading authority on Asperger’s syndrome, around 65 percent of teens with AS have some level of either anxiety or depression. These teens often want to be included and make friends but lack the social skills. They often worry about making a social “blunder” or are ostracized because of their awkwardness in social situations.

    Understanding and expressing emotions is sometimes quite difficult for those with ASD. They might need help in learning to understand what they feel, the appropriate ways to express the emotion and learning ways to manage or cope with strong feelings of anxiety.

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    Special Interests

    Many people with ASD have specialized interests or activities, such as working on computers, collections, or researching a specific topic. They may use this interest or activity as a way to relax and unwind. Often this is a positive way to deal with the stress of everyday life, for example, your teen might need to spend an hour after school alone, participating in his particular interest. This helps him calm down after a hectic, loud school day.

    But using special interests can sometimes create a problem, especially if your teen relies on this activity to calm down. There may be times your teen needs a calming activity but doesn’t have access or is unable to participate in his activity. Without additional calming techniques, he can become more agitated and anxious. The special interest can be one of several ways to cope with anxiety but shouldn’t be the only way.

    Daily Exercise

    Daily exercise has been found to reduce overall symptoms of anxiety and depression. Adding exercise into your teen’s daily schedule can help prevent feelings of anxiety from surfacing. Exercise can also be used during times of stress to relieve tenseness.

    Relaxation Strategies

    Teach your teen relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga or listening to relaxing music. These types of strategies can be used on a daily basis to increase an overall sense of calmness and can also be used once anxiety has been triggered to help your teen calm down.


    If your teen has trouble vocalizing his feeling, he might find it helpful to keep a journal. Writing down what he is feeling and the symptoms (physical and emotional) and what he did to alleviate the anxiety can help him become more aware of anxiety, express how he is feeling and learn what strategies help him calm down.

    You can create a journal with columns marked:

    • Situation
    • How I Felt
    • What I Did
    • Result (Did I feel better or worse)

    As your teen completes the journal, he might notice patterns and triggers to anxiety. He can use this information to help develop strategies to better cope with similar situations in the future.

    Create a Meltdown Plan

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    Once your teen has used some of the relaxation strategies and kept track of what worked and what didn’t you can work together to create a meltdown plan. Work on creating between one and five specific steps your teen can take when feeling overwhelmed. Use the information from his journal to help you determine what techniques he found most useful. Some teens may find it useful to write this plan down on a small card and keep it in their wallet or bookbag. This way he can refer to it whenever he needs to calm down.

Published On: April 29, 2014