Anxiety in hypersensitive or autistic children

Many aspects of daily life can be overwhelming for hypersensitive or autistic children, so it is unsurprising that dealing with the challenging impact of anxiety is a daily struggle for many of these children and their families.

Autistic children are twice as likely to develop anxiety than non-autistic children and around 40 percent are diagnosed with at least one anxiety disorder, with the most common being specific phobia, which is an extreme fear of a particular place, object, animal, person or situation. They can struggle to filter out and ignore things they hear, see, touch, smell and taste. This can lead to them feeling exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed, which in turn, can increase sensory hyper-reactivity, creating a vicious cycle of anxiety due to sensory difficulties and sensory difficulties due to anxiety.

Many of these children carry this disabling anxiety into adulthood, which can negatively affect their future prospects and quality of life. Because of this, autism researchers have made it a priority to understand why autistic children are much more at risk of developing anxiety and what can be done to prevent it.

At the University of Reading’s Centre for Autism, sensory hyper-reactivity and anxiety in 41 autistic children, aged three to 14 years was assessed. The aim was to understand if sensory hyper-reactivity is more strongly linked to particular anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (feeling anxious about a wide range of situations) or social anxiety disorder (overwhelming fear of social situations), which is important for understanding what strategies to adopt to prevent different anxiety disorders. All of the children had a formal diagnosis of autism and had average to above-average IQs. Parents completed questionnaires that told of the extent of their children’s sensory hyper-reactivity and anxiety. A questionnaire was also given to children aged six years and over so they could rate their anxiety.

Results found that autistic children who were more sensory hyper-reactive also had greater overall anxiety, as well as more symptoms relating to phobia and separation anxiety disorder. This demonstrates that sensory hyper-reactivity is related to anxiety in a general sense, but it may be more strongly linked to some anxiety disorders, and less so to others.

It is also known that other autism traits, such as repetitive behaviours, have also been linked to anxiety, so the analysis was repeated, controlling for broader autism traits. This was to ascertain if the results changed when taking these into account.

Results revealed that autistic children who were more sensory hyper-reactive also had more symptoms associated with phobia. However it was no longer found that sensory hyper-reactivity was related to overall anxiety or separation anxiety. This demonstrates that other autism traits, together with sensory hyper-reactivity, might be why autistic children are more likely to be anxious. But sensory hyper-reactivity could be more specifically linked to symptoms of phobia.

There are existing therapies to help children deal with their anxiety. But it is better to observe your child and intervene early to combat any risk factors before these anxiety disorders have a chance to develop. For example, if an autistic child struggles with sudden loud noises at an early age, this may evolve into them developing a fear of things that produce these sounds, such as dogs because of their barking, or balloons, due to them popping.

If we address sensory hyper-reactivity early on in a hypersensitive baby or child, this might prevent them from developing phobias or bad habits later in life.

At the Parent Infant Centre sensory difficulties are addressed using a range of different approaches that are targeted specifically to the needs of the child and the family. As there is much individual difference in autism, with a range of strengths and difficulties, taking a personalised approach to helping autistic children is the most effective method to prevent anxiety and improve the lives and future prospects of these autistic children. We have been adopting this proven method for 30 years.