Why do ASD kids get Anxious ? 6 Core Strategies


14-year old Jack diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome came to attend Occupational Therapy (OT)  session in school's OT room. Jack loves OT as he feels that he doesn’t have to study in this lesson and he can learn and do fun activities. However, this time, when he came to attend a lesson, he was seen worried and unfocused while carrying out tasks. On being asked,the reason of consistent worry, it was found that he has to come to school by public transport (bus) whole next week along with his class friend, as his father has gone on an official tour and mother doesn't know driving.

A thought of travelling in the bus made Jack extremely anxious because of which he couldn’t focus even on tasks he like. Waiting for the bus, getting on it, asking for a ticket from bus driver (new person), standing along with new unknown people, being touched by people which creates defensiveness while bus is moving, hearing different sounds (people talking, vehicles on road, baby crying, music), smell of various deodorants, are some of challenges which made Jack so nervous! 

Above mentioned experiences are just so normal for anyone of us and do not affect any typically growing adolescent, however, for a child like Jack they are big reasons of worry!

Children with or without autism display anxiety during the day to day situations. Getting separated from the parents (separation anxiety) is most common cause of nervousness among typically and atypically developing children. Recent research at the University of Amsterdam suggests that 40% of children and adolescents with ASD have anxiety issues.

Every day most of us face situations that can cause anxiety or nervousness such as getting late for school or office, getting stuck in traffic jam, before examination or interview or even not being able to understand a simple joke that others find funny. 
We simply know how to cope with such situations, either by informing office staff that we are running late or ignoring joke that we do not understand. However, for autistic or learning disabled adult and child coping with stress, anxiety or frustration can be a great challenge.

“My 5-year old son with Autism gets nervous easily in school and public places. He often starts crying in malls and I feel embarrassed. Is there anything I can do to help him?"

This is a common question heard from parents of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Learning Disabled (LD) and ADHD. Anxiety is not uncommon to anyone of us, however, atypically developing children display extreme nervousness in ordinary situations too.
As per anecdote reports, many children with autism will receive the another diagnosis at some point of development. The additional diagnosis is mostly related to (Simonoff, et al). 

So what triggers anxiety in children?             Dr Chuck Edington (2010) suggested common triggers of anxiety at home and school setting are, Unstructured Timing, Academic situations, sensory issues, social situations and Routines. Other factors of anxiety can be homework, examination, meeting a new person, fear of rejection from peers, or health concerns. 

Children with autism commonly display self-stimulatory behaviours (stemming) such as hand flapping, finger flicking (hand mannerisms), chewing and mouthing things, watching spinning objects, rocking body back and forth while sitting, nail biting or hand biting which, if not stopped can be self-injurious in nature.
Stemming helps them to calm down and reduce anxiety. Children having under-responsiveness (hypo-sensitivity) towards touch or hearing lack danger awareness which can lead to self-harming behaviour. 

For highly anxious children sensory stimulation (stimming) as a way of shutting down their thoughts, anxiety and related stress. It works as a medium of shifting one's own attention to physical stimulatory behaviour that is more engaging.

There is no causal relationship between anxiety and over-responsiveness (hyper-sensitivity) established through researchers, however, it is commonly observed, that children with over-sensitivity often react negatively to noisy and visually complex environments. 

Shutting their ears in public places, displaying temper tantrums, meltdowns during recess, trying to avoid hair cutting or dental check-ups by any means, being avoidant to bathing or tooth-brushing are some of the behavioural patterns of ASD child with anxiety.

To resolve the problem, parents need to be carried out some ‘detective’ work to find out possible reasons for anxiety.

Strategies for Tactile Defensiveness!


Touch is the first sensation that starts developing in the womb at five weeks. Some children react adversely, negatively or display  escape-like behaviour on being touched, hugged or kissed since they have difficulties in processing sensory information due to the poor tactile system. This behaviour is referred as Tactile Defensiveness.

Due to the inaccurate functioning of touch mechanism and neural system, these children are often in the state of 'red alert'. They may react by clinging or complaining (fright) to someone, or lashing out (fight) and running away (flight).

Often children displaying tactile defensiveness may also have self-stimulating behaviourRepeated movements such as hand flapping, body rocking, hand gazing, spinning have been found prevalent in children with developmental disabilities and Autism.

Research done by Feig et al (2012), concludes that there is a significant relationship between Tactile defensiveness and Self-stimulatory behaviours.They both are problematic as they appear and interfere in child's day-to-day activities. For example, a child who engages in hand flapping may not be able to do any other activity such as washing herself or eating on her own. Likewise, due to tactile defensiveness doing teeth-brushing or other self-care activities will be difficult.

Here are some of the suggestions for tactile defensiveness which may or may not be helpful, as each child is different, however making appropriate changes within child’s environment or strategies according to his needs and priorities can support him to live better and stay calmer.

A) Understand your child: (Address child's issues seriously= Trustworthy relationship + better behaved child)

Most importantly, it is parent’s responsibility to understand their child and her problems. Giving labels such as she has "bad behaviour" or "poor "attitude will not solve the issue. 
If she says “something always hurts me” or gets irritated due to scratching herself all the time, do not think she is pretending to gain empathy or purposefully trying to seek attention. 
There must be something unusual happening causing her to behave in this manner. 
Developing trust and developing an understanding of child's difficulties are essential parts of combating any problem. 
It will be great if parent and child both stay on the same team as good team players to resolve the issue rather than opponents where parents label the child for being anti-social frequently, and child reacts impulsively and aggressively on hearing those words over and again. 

B) Deep Pressure: (Leads to release of Dopamine or "happy neurotransmitter"= Calm brain & relaxed body)

Firm massage or deep pressure with pillows, cushions or rolling in a weighted blanket is very calming. Parents should understand signals when these strategies are needed. Children having sensitivities are overloaded with touch or noise in crowded places or parties. Parents should be aware of these situations and intervention should be provided before emotional or anger outbursts happens.Children get sleep disturbances caused due to sensory issues.Using techniques like Wilbarger Brushing Protocol  has been found to be an effective way of calming child for better sleep.
This should be under the supervision of Occupational Therapist or consult child's OT before trying Brushing Technique.

C) Weighted Items: (Stimulates body joints & muscles = Improves self-regulation,modulation,stress and anxiety)

Wearing weighted blankets, vests, backpacks or hats can have the calming effect in the classroom as well as at home. Great range of weighted items is available on Amazon such as ankle weights, lap weights shoulder and neck weights. They help to calm down a child in the classroom as well as any other environment leading her to focus on the task and reduce distraction. Weighted blankets are very helpful in calming the child’s distractibility, emotional liability, and hyper activeness. Another very good resource is TFH, South Paw
T-Jackets have been found to be a good resource of calming down a child. They have been scientifically customised for providing deep pressure and calming effects. 

D) Safety: (Prevention is better than cure so TAKE-CARE of child!)

Children who are hypo-responsive or sensory seeking towards touch are unaware of bruises and injuries. They do not get pain sensation messages from brain centers due to which they are prone to injuries. They may display self-stimulating or self-injurious behaviours along with tactile defensiveness.The stereotyped behaviours are common among Autistic children. Most common form is motor patterns are hand flapping, body gazing or object manipulation. Temple (1992) in her study Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals has suggested that Tactile Defensiveness co-exists with Stereotypical behaviour in Autism .Sensory Modulation and regulation is an important function which does not work well in both hyper and hyposensitivity of touch.It is important to follow some hands-on strategies such as:

  • Use of sensory experiences :Such as trampoline jumping,obstacle course, running
  • Follow Routines and maintain structure: e.g., planning a week ahead
  • Communication: Understanding child's behaviour in anticipation, environment, emotional liability.
  • Visual Support: Emotion's chart, use of PECS.
  • Talk to GP about Medication.
  • Use Barriers such as using cushions or pillows if the child does head banging,or tie the cloth on his hand to reduce self-biting.
  • Use soft furniture.
  • Keep rooms safe, the child should not be able to lock himself in a room, windows should not be wide-open.
  • Keep sharp objects like knife, fork, scissors, razors out of reach of the child.

F) Fabrics: (Removal of unpleasant sensory input = Relief & physical comfort)

Pay attention to the different fabrics. Following tips may be helpful related to fabrics:-
  • Give preference to child's fabric or texture.Some children like to wear cotton and avoid woolens, synthetics or any other texture that might irritate them. 
  • Wearing skin fit clothing is preferable than loose clothing
  • Stick to seamless clothing. 
  • Liners and tags are always irritable making child impulsive and distracted easily. Removing or cutting tags is the simple solution for this. 
  • As far as footwear is concerned, it should be comfortable and slip on type. Fasteners are also the good option if he finds tying laces complicated.
  • Long sleeves are preferable than short arm sleeves. 
  • Do not force him to wear belts, waistbands if he doesn’t feel good about it.

H) Active Involvement: (Child knows himself better than anyone else)

Self-directed tactile experiences are more calming then done by anyone else. Therefore, encourage the child to perform activities himself rather than done passively, by anyone else for him, however, assistance or supervision may be needed for completing tasks. After bath let him rub himself or put lotion independently since he can judge well how much deep firm pressure will be calming for self. Make your own Play-Doh at home.

I) Classroom Strategies: (Favourable IEP = Better provisions = Better behaved child + raised self-esteem)
Let the child stand last in a row in school. Let him
sit alone if he gets distracted by other pupil’s touch. Talk to teachers and school management to create awareness about your child’s difficulties. Teachers should know what child is going through and why is he distracted multiple times or scratches himself during the lessons. They should allow the child to do wall pushes or chair pushes if he feels calming during break times. The child should also get movement breaks if the teacher allows.  This should be included in his IEP. http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/5894.html

J) Inform before touching: (Respect child's integrity)

Hugs, kisses or any other type of touch should be done with consent. Ask or inform him before touching the child. This reduces anxiety levels and arousal too.Touching without consent can create disruptive behaviour. To know more about cause and neuroscience of tactile defensiveness click here.

K) Heavy Work Activities (Proprioceptive Input): (Tactile + proprioceptive input = calming effects,reduced anxiety,disruptive behaviour)

Pushing and pulling heavy objects such as barrels, carts, large bean bags,
the pile of chairs or pushing another child on the swing. All this 
gives proprioceptive input!

These activities provide deep pressure to muscles, joints, ligaments and key points of the body (Shoulders, Pelvis, Hips) to a tactile defensive child. 
Moreover, giving movement breaks will support a child to concentrate better in studies, such as sending him to an office to handover papers or asking him to distribute assignments in the classroom. See Classroom strategies for more information.