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Managing Separation Anxiety in Autistic Children

May 20, 2024

Everyone in the world has experienced separation anxiety at some point in their life. For some, it may be their first trip to a sleepaway camp. For others, it may be leaving the nest for college or employment. But what about children with autism and separation anxiety?

When a child with autism spectrum disorder experiences separation anxiety, things can be tougher than with a neurotypical child. Children may experience physical symptoms of their anxiety. However, parents and caregivers can work with autistic children to help them manage their separation anxiety.

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What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety disorder is simply defined as an excessive concern, worry, or dread when someone is separated from attachment figures. This is common among children who feel a strong attachment to their parents, guardians, or caregivers. 

However, sometimes separation anxiety disorders can manifest in such an intense way the child may struggle to cope with any separation. According to research, nearly two-thirds of children with ASD will experience anxiety disorders.

While separation anxiety isn’t the most common among kids with autism, studies show that about 14 percent of autistic children dealing with anxiety also deal with separation anxiety.

Children with autism express anxiety in different ways. Some physical symptoms include an increase in challenging behaviors, meltdowns, isolation, hyperfixation, and sleep problems.

Why do children with autism struggle with separation anxiety?

Why does there seem to be an increase in children with autism and separation anxiety? Anxiety affects children differently, but many children with ASD will experience increased anxiety due to changes presented by the separation.

Attachment figures can provide a source of comfort for many children. Being separated can lead to extreme distress due to a variety of triggers.

These include:

A young boy feeling sad and anxious https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-separation-anxiety/

For many children with autism spectrum disorders, the person they are attached to can help with these issues. The child may not know or understand someone else may be able to help them cope with these triggers.

Tips for managing autism and separation anxiety

Anxiety disorders can be difficult to manage, but with patience and practice, parents and caregivers can help children with ASD overcome separation anxiety. There are several ways to help manage separation anxiety disorders.

1. Practice separation

It’s a fact of life that children will have to be separated from their parents for periods of time. So, parents should practice short stints of separation in social situations to help the child overcome separation anxiety.

This can help the child cope when they are about to start school. Parents should also set limits when the child is getting acquainted with new surroundings.

2. Leave without a fuss

Children on the autism spectrum will often mimic what they see their parents do. If parents overreact to a situation while leaving, it can increase the likelihood of separation anxiety. Leaving without a fuss lets the child know there’s no reason to be anxious.

3. Stick to a routine

Many children with autism spectrum disorder benefit from routines. Keeping those routines for children who may be experiencing an anxiety disorder can help them overcome it. 

Routines often provide a sense of comfort. Helping the child recognize that a time of separation is a part of the routine could reduce anxiety.

4. Therapy or games

Negative reactions are common for a child with autism and separation anxiety. But if your child is involved in therapy, their therapist can work with them to help them overcome their separation anxiety. Therapy can help transform negative reactions into positive ones.

Meanwhile, parents can also use games to address separation anxiety disorder and help expose them and familiarize them with the world.

Arm yourself with patience and understanding

Autism and separation anxiety often go hand in hand. Many children with ASD won’t want to be separated from important figures in their lives. However, they will have to learn how to separate for periods of time.


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Children with autism express anxiety differently than typically developing children, but parents and caregivers can help alleviate a child’s anxiety. It’s up to adults in the child’s daily life to address social anxiety for children with autism spectrum disorder.

It will be a long process with repetitive behavior to help your child cope with anxiety symptoms they may be facing, especially when the child begins attending school. But stay positive, keep at it, and it will all be worth seeing your child thriving without you having to hold their hand every step of the way.

FAQs

Q: What does anxiety in autism spectrum disorders look like?

A: Anxiety in children with ASD can present itself as sleep problems, resistance to change, and a need for routine. Children with autism may also become unpredictable in unfamiliar social situations.

Q: What triggers meltdowns in children with autism?

A: Sensory overload is the primary trigger for meltdowns in children with ASD. Lights, sounds, smells, and textures could all lead to anxiety-provoking situations for children with autism.

Q: What are common fears for people with autism?

A: Children with autism tend to fear sensory situations that may trigger their anxiety. These situations include loud sounds, bright lights, unusual smells, and uncomfortable touch.

Q: What is often mistaken for autism?

A: Generalized anxiety disorder, intense anxiety, social anxiety withdrawal, isolation, extreme shyness, and selective mutism are often mistaken for autism symptoms in children.

References:

Ben-Itzchak, E., Koller, J. & Zachor, D.A. Characterization and Prediction of Anxiety in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Longitudinal Study. J Abnorm Child Psychol 48, 1239–1249 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-020-00673-0

Den Houting, J., Adams, D., Roberts, J., & Keen, D. (2019). An exploration of autism‐specific and non‐autism‐specific measures of anxiety symptomatology in school‐aged autistic children. Clinical Psychologist, 23(3), 237–248. 

Feriante J, Torrico TJ, Bernstein B. Separation Anxiety Disorder. [Updated 2023 Feb 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560793/

Guerrera S, Pontillo M, Tata MC, Di Vincenzo C, Bellantoni D, Napoli E, Valeri G, Vicari S. Anxiety in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Clinical Characteristics and the Role of the Family. Brain Sci. 2022 Nov 22;12(12):1597. doi: 10.3390/brainsci12121597. PMID: 36552057; PMCID: PMC9775263.

Lau, B. Y., Leong, R., Uljarevic, M., Lerh, J. W., Rodgers, J., Hollocks, M. J., South, M., McConachie, H., Ozsivadjian, A., Van Hecke, A., Libove, R., Hardan, A., Leekam, S., Simonoff, E., & Magiati, I. (2020). Anxiety in young people with autism spectrum disorder: Common and autism-related anxiety experiences and their associations with individual characteristics. Autism, 24(5), 1111-1126.

Thiele-Swift, H.N., Dorstyn, DS. Anxiety Prevalence in Youth with Autism: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Methodological and Sample Moderators. Rev J Autism Dev Disord (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-023-00427-w

Vasa, R.A., Keefer, A., McDonald, R.G., Hunsche, M.C. and Kerns, C.M. (2020), A Scoping Review of Anxiety in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Research, 13: 2038-2057.

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