Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, which can be mild or severe. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. For example, you may feel worried and anxious about sitting an exam or having a medical test.
However research shows that many people on the autism spectrum are considerably more anxious than other people. There are numerous possible causes of anxiety in people on the autism spectrum. For example sometimes the anxiety is caused by underlying issues such as a fear of change or sensory sensitivities. Sometimes the anxiety is triggered by a specific event, such as a stranger entering the room or a dog barking.
Anxiety can cause all sorts of problems for people on the autism spectrum, their families and carers, and society as a whole. For example, it may cause some people to shut down altogether, preventing them from communicating with or interacting with other people. Alternatively it may cause some people to develop challenging behaviours – such as aggression or self injury.
There are a number of interventions commonly used to prevent or reduce anxiety in people on the autism spectrum. These include psychological approaches (such as cognitive behavioural therapy), medications (such as anxiolytics) and a wide range of complementary and alternative approaches (such as weighted vests).
There is very little high quality research evidence on the effectiveness of most of these interventions for people on the autism spectrum, although this does not necessarily mean that they do not work. NICE recommends treating people on the autism spectrum in the same way as you would anybody else who suffers from anxiety i.e. using a combination of psychological techniques and/or medication.
We believe that if you can identify the causes of someone’ s anxiety, including any situations that are likely to make them anxious, you are more likely to be able to help them deal with that anxiety. We also believe that, whatever you do to reduce anxiety in an individual, you should do so in a safe, consistent and predictable environment as this will help.
Further research is needed to identify the most appropriate, comprehensive assessment and outcome measures for anxiety in people on the autism spectrum; to determine if anxiety is simply a condition that commonly occurs alongside autism, if it is a core feature of autism, or if it is a separate but not independent condition; and to identify which groups of people on the autism spectrum with anxiety might benefit most from which interventions