Social Anxiety in Adults with Autism

Neuroimaging studies show that a person’s amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for emotional memories, is associated with social anxiety disorders.

Lifestyle treatments and alternative therapies for individuals with autism can help manage anxiety symptoms.

However, learning the causes and triggers of a person’s anxious behavior is crucial in prescribing appropriate treatment plans for individuals with autism and social anxiety.

Elevated comorbidity burdens among people with autism include psychiatric illnesses, seizures, and gastrointestinal disorders. The gut microbiome modulates the neurotransmitter production involved in mental disorders.

Managing Social Anxiety in Adults With Autism

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders often experience social anxiety. Some symptoms experienced by these people include excessive sweating, panic attacks, self-harm, hyperventilation, and they might also be at risk for excess weight gain.

These social anxiety episodes are triggered by different factors, such as worrying about uncertainties, communication barriers, and stressful situations.

Martha, a mother of a 21-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder, shared her experience with her daughter’s battle with social anxiety.

“For quite some time, it was just me and my daughter in the house, and she struggled with social anxiety. So I decided to enroll her in a social skills class to help her manage her stress.

The night before her first class, she had a hard time falling asleep. She went into my room crying so hard that she couldn’t breathe.

I rushed over to her and started consoling her with her breathing exercises. It took a while before she calmed down.

When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was afraid that something bad would happen to her in class the next day.

I looked at her and knew that she was genuinely scared. I tried to comfort her by listing down all of the activities they would do during their class. She attentively listened until she fell asleep.

The following day, she woke up in a good mood. We drove to the class and met with her teacher.

When my daughter was asked how she was, she shyly pulled away and hugged me. I knew she’s starting to get scared again, so I squeezed her hand, smiled, and gave her a thumbs up.

She knew that it meant everything’s going to be okay. So she imitated the thumbs up and showed it to her teacher. Her teacher smiled and welcomed her to the classroom.”

Lessen Uncertainty

Uncertainty is one of the triggers of social anxiety among adults with autism. It’s best if they are informed in advance about what will happen in social events or activities.

List down the sequence of events that they can look forward to in social situations. Having a structured plan can help minimize stress.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

It is essential to know some soothing techniques when out socializing with other people. Simple breathing exercises can be helpful in situations where there are unforeseen triggers.

Self-soothing techniques, like listening to music, taking a warm bath, and deep breathing, may also help in dealing with social anxiety.

Manage Energy Levels

Some social gatherings and events can drain one’s energy and contribute to stress.

It is advisable to have time-outs to do creative activities, pursue a hobby or interest, or engage in nature to recharge and reset time.

Using Medication

Some people with autism have prescriptions for anxiety. Ensure that these medications are packed and ready in case severe panic and anxiety attacks occur.

However, be cautious when taking medicines for anxiety, for they may have adverse effects. Consult a doctor before taking or administering these medicines.

Attending Therapy

There are therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), that can help individuals with autism who suffer from social anxiety.

CBT focuses on teaching individuals with autism to:

  • Identify anxious thoughts and work to enhance executive functions
  • Improving engagement with others and reciprocity skills
  • Help cope with difficulties in abstract thinking

This program often progressively exposes individuals with autism to their feared stimuli to help them manage their response.

Anxiety Disorders in Adults With Autism

Adults with autism may also experience other forms of anxiety, such as separation anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Separation Anxiety

This type of anxiety stems from the attachment of the person with autism to another person or thing. When that person or thing moves away or suddenly goes away, separation anxiety occurs.

Separation anxiety is characterized by:

  • Constant worrying of losing a loved one
  • Refusing to do sleep away from a loved one
  • Worrying that something terrible will happen
  • Does not want to be alone

Phobia Encounters

There are instances when anxiety arises in individuals with autism due to intense, irrational fear of something or phobia.

People with autism have high responsiveness to sensory stimulation. These phobias may include unusual stimuli, loud environments, and present fears, like animals or the dark.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders (OCD)

People with this disorder experience anxiety due to unwanted, obsessive thoughts and compulsions or repetitive behaviors that are responses to their anxiety.

When an individual has an OCD, they often:

  • Spend at least an hour a day thinking about these obsessive thoughts or doing these compulsions.
  • Cannot control their excessive thoughts and behaviors.
  • Does not feel pleasure in doing any of the compulsions but may feel a little bit of relief from anxiety.