Autism is often described as a social and communication disorder. Many adults with autism have first been misdiagnosed, or have co-morbid diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, anxiety disorder, and panic disorders. It is unclear whether these are separate from their autism or are actually a part of the autism itself. One thing is for certain, anxiety affects both autistic adults and children. Autistic adults may or may not be able to articulate what is causing them stress, but children often will not recognize their stressors. They will not be able to identify on their own what “triggers” their anxiety.
What Causes Anxiety in Autistic Children?
Sources of anxiety can range from stress in social situations, the uncertainty of a daily routine, pressure in school, to overloading sensory issues. Sensory stimuli like noise, lights, and smells can trigger feelings of anxiety in the autistic individual because they experience these things more intensely than a neuro-typical person. Heightened senses, or hyper-reactivity to sensory stimuli, can make loud noises and bright lights physically painful, and obnoxious odors can be unbearable. Too much stimuli at one time can cause overload, meltdowns, and feelings of panic.
Panic Attacks in Autistic Adults
Beyond feelings of stress and anxiety, many adults on the spectrum report being susceptible to panic attacks. It is akin to being in a constant “fight or flight” state where your system is in overdrive. Panic attacks can be brought on by overwhelming sensory stimuli, social situations, and many times medications.
Can Medication Cause Panic Attacks?
Autistic people tend to respond to medications differently, many times needing medication in much lower doses than what are usually prescribed. Some autistic people cannot tolerate even the smallest amounts of certain kinds of medications like painkillers, anti-depressants, or anti-anxiety medication. These medications themselves, even those specifically designed to treat panic can in fact bring on panic attacks in autistic individuals. Despite their sensitivities to medications, some people with autism can be and have been treated for anxiety effectively with medications.
Anxiety seems to be a part of life on the autism spectrum, but understanding the susceptibility and learning to recognize what “triggers” the anxiety can help begin to combat it. Eliminating some sensory stimuli, making the person more comfortable, or simply preparing them for the situation ahead of time can all help to alleviate some stress and anxiety.