One of the challenges an autistic child or adolescent can face at school is for their behaviour to be interpreted as being ‘naughty’ or oppositional and defiant. Whilst autistic children, like all children, can be defiant, very often acts of seeming defiance, aggression and anger are expressions of anxiety. We tend to think of anxious children being quiet and submissive, and this can happen in autism. However, anxiety is a fight/flight response, and in autism anxiety may be expressed in ‘fight.’ Aggression and anger are more likely when the child’s attempts to reduce high levels of stress and anxiety are thwarted leading to feelings of frustration.
Another sign of anxiety in autism is when the child or adolescent seeks to control their environment, for example, by acting as the ‘class policeman’ telling the other children off for breaking the rules, telling them what to do, and telling one them, which can be ‘social suicide.’ Imposing the rules on others is the child’s attempt to reduce chaos and uncertainty and impose order.
Anxiety can increase the core characteristics of autism. For example, when an autistic child is anxious, they are likely to look at people’s faces less often, use less body language and a monotonous voice, and to use fewer, if any, social skills. Some autistic children and teens will become mute. It is very difficult to make friends and be social when faced with strong anxiety.
Some of the diagnostic characteristics of autism are an attempt to manage anxiety. For example, restricted, repetitive and ritualistic behaviours may be soothing and function as a means of reducing anxiety. An anxious child’s insistence on sameness at school is likely to be a means to prevent experiencing situations that could create anxiety.
Strong interests in particular topics, a hallmark of autism, may increase when the child is anxious because the interest is an effective thought blocker. Taking away the interest will increase anxiety, potentially leading to more meltdowns.
The parents of an autistic child may have identified specific behaviours, actions and comments that indicate increasing anxiety in their son or daughter. Some may be unique to the child, such as talking about a particularly ferocious dinosaur, or repeating fragments of conversation that are associated with the first time they experienced a particular expression of anxiety. These parents may find it valuable, once they recognize both their child’s conventional and unique signs of expressing increasing anxiety, to create a ‘foreign phrase’ dictionary that translates the behaviour to identify the nature, type and depth of emotion.
Attwood & Garnett Events present Behaviour and Emotion Management for Children and Adolescents with Autism . This online training webcast will explore and explain more signs of anxiety, why autistic children experience intense emotions, especially anxiety, and strategies for emotion expression and regulation that can be used at home and school.