In common with many children on the autism spectrum, both my boys suffer degrees of social anxiety. My eldest boy is the most impacted and also has signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Sadly, social anxiety is very common among autistic children and adults and is at its highest rate amongst teenagers on the spectrum. Recent research in America, identified that, people with Autism have a higher rate of anxiety than those in the rest of the population.
So, what is social anxiety and what can we do as parents to help our children cope with it and if not overcome it, live with it.
Social Anxiety also known as social phobia, means what is says on the tin, it is the fear of being in social settings i.e., interacting with others.
The most commonly observed symptoms include:
- Feelings of fear or doom in one or more social situations
- Excessive blushing and increased heart rate
- Rapid speech
- Fear of being judged by others
- Saying something then feeling embarrassed / humiliated later
- Uncomfortable to meet new people
- Difficulty concentrating
- Paying very high attention after an activity
- Excessive sweating
- Changes in appetite
- Sleep disturbance
As many of you are aware, several of these symptoms overlap with the common red flags of autism. These include repetitive behaviour, the importance of a rigid of routine, rituals, reduced emotional expressiveness, or limited or no desire for social interactions. This overlap can make it very difficult for parents to identify anxiety disorders in their children and teens who already have an autism diagnosis.
Despite this, it is important if you feel your child suffers from social anxiety to help get them support. Now with so many reduced services this is easier said than done, but professional intervention is vital to ensure you and your child can manage the situation.
Be on the lookout for red flags. A person experiencing anxiety may lose their appetite or eat more than normal. They may struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. Sometimes, anxiety can look a lot like anger or fear. Stay alert to changes in your child over time to help you decide whether this is a passing mood or a long-term condition.
If left untreated it can lead to:
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive rituals
- Anger outbursts
- Substance abuse
- Clinical depression
We have been fighting for years to get support for our boy and thankfully we now have resource hours with a phycologist, but as every autism mum and dad will tell you, most of the work needs to be done in the home and in the school.
Some techniques we have tried and which I would recommend are:
- Find the root cause of the anxiety. In many teenagers on the autism spectrum this can sadly be bullying. Ensuring a zero-tolerance approach can ensure that this is sorted before it spirals out of control.
- Do not be afraid to challenge your child. Avoiding social situations is not the answer, it is just sweeping the problem away. Socialise your child and even if it’s just a shopping trip, you are still helping them.
- Research and help your child develop new skills. Problem-solving strategies and coping skills can help people with anxiety to feel more in control and reduce anxiety, whether they have autism or not.
- Work with your child’s school and social network. Education and autism awareness are key and can ensure that schools, sports clubs ,workplaces and local shops can reduce sensory inputs. This has proven to help reduce anxiety and most people are keen to help.
- If the anxiety is an issue, then clinical intervention may be needed. Treatments such as Cognitive behaviour therapy and Mindfulness-based strategies can help a person with autism become more aware of thoughts and emotional responses, which can in turn then help them to address the issues they face, cope better in social situations and reduce anxiety,
I hope these ideas can help you and your child and I would like to leave you with my latest podcast where I talked to Nicholas Ryan Purcell the film maker and author. Nicholas successfully overcame his social anxiety and depression with the help of his friends and family. You can listen to it here.