Asperger’s and Anxiety

14 Jul

Asperger’s and Anxiety
When you have a child who has difficulty making sense of social behavior or reading the nonverbal cues that make up so much of social communication, then that child is more likely to become anxious. It is hard to feel confident or relaxed if you are constantly surprised by the reactions of others. When you have a child who tends to gets overfocused on certain topics and is relatively inflexible in trying any new or any departures from a set routine, this child will have more worries. When a child has pronounced sensory sensitivities or is just more reactive, that child will be more anxious. The sympathetic nervous system, in such children is overactive, while the “keep it calm system,” the parasympathetic system, is underactive. Too much stimulation becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. These are some of the symptoms of a child who could receive a diagnosis of Asperger’s, but many children share these features, if not the entire picture. And as a group, a very high percentage of them will end up on medication to help them modulate their intense reactions.
For such children, there is probably no one single intervention that is going to make them less anxious, other than just removing the stress, as when parents decide to homeschool their child because there are so many aspects of going to school that are problematic and overwhelming. But this option isn’t always desirable or practical for most families. So it remains to look at the entire life of the child and see where she is being successful and where she is struggling.
First, anxious children are revved up for an “emergency” but with no place to go with their energy, so having exercise as a part of their lives is important. But for most of these children, with their difficulty reading social cues, team sports are not a viable option. More individually oriented activities such as swimming or martial arts may be better suited to their temperaments. But, it not as simple as just signing them up for swimming classes. These children can often be rather perfectionistic and if something does not come right away, you will get comments such as “this is boring,” the code phrase that should never be accepted at face value. Nevertheless, some form of exercise or activity is critical to prevent the buildup of emotional tension.
Second, children with Asperger’s have trouble identifying their own feelings — and understanding the feelings of others. With regard to themselves, they may not be able to identify when they are anxious, or they may mislabel their feelings as anxiety when it might reflect something else such as a sense of agitation that comes from not being engaged with a preferred activity. Then with regard to their peers, the problem with reading social cues can exert a cumulative effect as interactions get more complex with age, particularly in middle school. Children are becoming more independent from their parents and turning more toward peers at this age. This is a transition that will be hard for children with Asperger’s to keep up with. Perhaps they get made fun of for their socially mistimed overtures or discourses on their favorite topics, or they may just simply be avoided and ignored. As a result, children may become more socially anxious and less inclined to take chances with others. I wish I could say there are some simple solutions, but I am not aware of them. Instead, I think we need to cast our nets widely, collaborating with organizations such as Asperger’s parent groups, and professionals with interests in this area. We just don’t want these struggles to interfere with these children’s unique strengths being nurtured, and having them sidetracked by disabling emotions.

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