Anxiety in Children with Autism… and Parents too?
Studies show anxiety is often high with people coping with Autism; any parent of a child with Autism can likely agree with this. This can be true for not only the individual with Autism, but for the family, especially the parents, as well.
Last week my five-year old went in for a surgery. We talked about it for days ahead of time, but when the actual moment came and we walked through those doors into the pre-op room, anxiety was high and challenging to deal with. Understanding the situation my son was facing, I tried being as patient as I could be and was more lenient on rules and such. I bribed him with everything that I could to get him to do simple things, such as stepping onto a scale. Finally the only thing that helped calm him down was simply watching videos on my phone; he needed the focus on something familiar and that he could be in charge of (meaning he could change the video if he wanted, start it, stop it, etc.). Then the moment came to go back to the operating room… it took three of us to hold him down on the bed while wheeling down the hall, and again three of us to hold him while putting the mask on him.
By this time I was exhausted. I left the room feeling like an emotional wreck… my child was having surgery and I could do nothing until he was out. The look he gave me when we put the mask on him was daunting; I had chills. Tears stung my eyes as I walked out to the waiting room. My body shook from exhaustion, as during the past two hours I had been holding him, moving him, carrying him, and finally holding him down. I collapsed into the chair, alone, waiting for my husband to get off work and come to us. I felt sick and light-headed and had no idea what to do.
My son’s anxiety was high, but so was mine. We were in situations we could not control; I had given up my son into the hands of a doctor and a nurse. And now all I could do was wait…
Why the High Anxiety?
Anxiety is a side-effect from the Autism; it does not constitute a diagnosis, but adds to the long list of things one has to deal with. The anxiety comes and goes with Autism, but usually takes a long time to go away once high anxiety takes place.
People with Autism like expected outcomes; they like knowing what is going to happen and essentially being in charge of situations. They want control- this helps them feel less anxious. But as we all know, this is not always possible in daily life. When an individual feels like things are out of control, and the outcome-based experiences are not happening, anxiety increases. This can look like a multitude of different things, including abnormal noises or screaming, body movements such as hands flapping, poor eye-contact, repetitive behaviors, and less communication to others. They feel frustrated, upset, agitated. The brain and body simply feels like it cannot handle the situation, so it responds with anxiety.
Anxiety in General
Certainly all of us have experienced anxiety on our own in our own situation. I also had a surgery last week in which I was not put under anesthesia. Now, this has happened to me before, but not while having surgery on my eye lid. The day of the surgery my anxiety was ridiculously high. I did all my coping techniques, deep breathing, calming music, reading, distracting, etc., but once in the surgery room, I laid on the floor, feeling nauseous and overwhelmed. It was an experience I never want to go through again.
Sometimes anxiety is intense; like my example above. At times it is less intense, such as test taking, doctor visits, meeting new people, or presentations. Symptoms can be psychological, cognitive, or emotional. Psychological symptoms can include feeling weak, rapid heartbeat, muscle problems, and hyperventilation. Cognitive symptoms can include thoughts of needing to escape or making a fool of oneself, paranoid ideas and thoughts, and low self-esteem thoughts. The emotional symptoms can include constant fears, feelings of loneliness and depression, and excessively worrying.
Anxiety can lead to emotional and health problems when not dealt with and treated properly. Panic attacks can be common and tend to flare up at the worst possible moments, consuming one’s life. High blood pressure can ensue and cause heart problems and many other physical problems. This is why it is critical to deal with anxiety now before it gets out of hand. There are techniques to cope with anxiety (discussed below) and it may be helpful to see a counselor to get it under control.
A Parents Anxiety
There is no doubt that coping with challenging children can raise anxiety in parents. Situations are different and difficult for us. We want to protect our children because they already have enough to deal with… I wanted to take my son out of that surgery room and take him home where he felt safe and secure.
We tend to get anxious based on past experiences. For example, my son does not always get on the bus well… will he today? If I cannot get him on the bus, what will I do? Will he calm down enough to be able to function at school well? These questions and thoughts raise my anxiety on a daily basis around 11:45am as I get him ready to head to preschool. Then my stress level goes up, I talk louder and more sternly to him, my patience is gone, and I feel tense all over. Once he gets on the bus and I come back inside, I am not really sure what to do with myself… as the last twenty minutes I have been consumed with this nasty anxiety.
My friend recently traveled with her husband and two boys. She was not looking forward to the trip, as her oldest son has Autism and high anxiety. Actually, this child has some of the highest anxiety I have ever seen in a kid. I could sense my friend’s anxiety as she was telling me about the upcoming trip, and I felt her pain; I was there too when we began traveling with our son. She called me as she was walking out the door to the airport, already near tears as her son was going stir crazy with his anxiety. I could not help her; I could only offer suggestions and prayer. Unfortunately her trip was a tough one, and her son’s anxiety level was insanely high. She felt hopeless and stressed, and everyone else around them felt the same as well.
Did my friend do anything wrong? Not necessarily. Could she have done things differently? Sure, I am sure many of you have ideas and suggestions. Would it have changed the situation? Likely no. She did common behavioral techniques with her son; she reasoned with him and told him what they were doing before it happened. But he is only 3, very young, and has a lot to learn with coping with his high anxiety. It will hopefully get better for her and her family; it will take time and patience.
Many of you have been in my friend’s shoes; you know the feeling and the frustrations. You have been near tears and have felt the emotional lows. Tell me your stories, your thoughts!
Coping Skills for Anxiety
Most of us probably know the basic coping skills for anxiety: deep breaths, calm music, glass of cold water, relaxation techniques, etc. Believe it or not, these are the same techniques we need to teach our children with Autism, and yes parents, we need to set the example to our children and practice these techniques ourselves!!! Children learn through example, and children with Autism are no exception to this as well.
My biggest and most critical advice for you: take time for yourself!!! You MUST do this!! A saying I use a lot with my clients is you must take care of yourself before you can help others. If you have ever flown a commercial airline, you know the drill of be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Why is this? Because if you are dead, you cannot help someone, plain and simple. If you are a wreck- stressed out, high anxiety, exhausted, no patience- how can you be of much help to your child? I know… easier said than done, right?
Make this a priority. Get away for a few hours. Go to Starbucks (they have free wifi) and watch something on Netflix or just read and enjoy some coffee or tea. Get together with a friend that helps to raise you up rather than bring you down; in other words, do not go out with someone that is needy. Get away for weekends alone or with your spouse; find a friend or family member to watch your kid and just simply enjoy some relax time. If you do not have anyone to watch your child, use respite care. This is important, you need it, you deserve it, and it will be immensely beneficial.
My husband and I do this often. We cannot as often anymore since we moved away from my family, but we have great friends here and we have been known to leave our son with my family in Washington while we go away for a week! We missed our son, but we enjoyed ourselves. And we felt rested so by the time we got back to him, we were ready to face our daily challenges with a renewed strength.
My last thought is prayer. Pray for your weaknesses and challenges, and ask others to help support you through this. Anxiety may be an unavoidable thing, but we certainly do not need it to consume our lives and eventually end up a slave to it. We even see an example of Jesus, perfect as he was, physically being affected from anxiety as he was lead to the cross, knowing what was going to take place. Again, the anxiety was there with Him, but He fought through it and eventually came above it.
Proverbs 12:25 says, “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up” (NIV). If your anxiety is high, it only wears you out both physically and emotionally. Seek help, seek kind words!
Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (NIV). Anxiety and prayer are opposing forces… think about it, you feel all these negative emotions/thoughts/physical symptoms, and prayer to God is a healing experience. Allow Him to help you!
And finally 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (NIV). This is why we have our Heavenly Father, to turn to for strength when we cannot do it alone.
I know this can all seem overwhelming and yet powerful. Taking on the responsibility of caring for someone with Autism is a great challenge. I applaud you all for your suffering and your amazing capability! Your strength inspires me and gives me continual hope for my challenges and sufferings! And all of this makes the wonderful times so much more meaningful and filled with blessing!
Remember, God qualifies the called! If you are called to be a parent of a child with Autism, God is qualifying you daily. Keep pressing forward!!
If you need help with anxiety with yourself and/or your child, contact me firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-258-6392.
This link has some helpful thoughts and ideas and includes other disorders often linked with Autism http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/treatment-associated-psychiatric-conditions
Here is another interesting article http://www.research.chop.edu/blog/exploring-the-relationship-between-autism-and-anxiety/
A book I read and LOVED- Managing Anxiety in People with Autism: A Treatment Guide for Parents, Teachers, and Mental Health Professionals by Anne M. Chalfant, Psy. D.