Identifying the cause of anxiety…and taking steps to manage it…
Dr Lisa Williams took part in the Autism West Midlands 2020 conference with a presentation on cognitive behaviour therapy for children with autism and anxiety.
The annual conference is held for parents, carers and professionals in the West Midlands region who are supporting children and families.
The Shropshire conference took place online with expert speakers delivering webinar sessions for parents, carers and professionals and focused on autism and anxiety.
Why are children with autism more likely to be anxious?
Dr Williams spoke to delegates about the fact that children with autism are more likely to experience anxiety – and this is because life is harder for them.
She said: “They have many added stressors in their life; the pressure to conform and fit in, their sensitivity to sensory stimuli, the extra effort it takes for them to understand other people, difficulty identifying and expressing their own emotions, fear of making a mistake because of previous negative experiences.
The list goes on. And that is all before the usual pressures of school – life can become stressful and exhausting.”
How does anxiety present itself in children with autism?
Dr Williams explained that anxiety can present in several different ways, and one of those can be through behavioural difficulties.
“The ‘naughty’ child,” she said. “Children’s anxiety gets mislabelled as naughty behaviour. They act out because they are struggling emotionally; not because they are naughty. Children communicate their inner world through their behaviour, and we must be sensitive to this.”How can we manage anxiety?
Dr Williams told delegates that understanding anxiety and how it functions, and tackling some of the causes, can be helpful.
Reduce physical symptoms:
- Relaxation and breathing
Altering thoughts related to anxiety
- Identify and challenge
And changing behaviours related to anxiety
- Exposure and reinforcement
- Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)
Dr Williams explained that CBT is one model of understanding psychological problems. It gives children a tool kit of coping strategies which they can use to help them manage and overcome their anxiety.
She said: “Thoughts, feelings and behaviours all interact, and if we understand how they do this, we have greater control over the way we feel.“It is not always about treating the child though. Sometimes the environment – such as the school setting – just isn’t right, and this needs changing first”.Dr Williams added that adults that experience stress and anxiety would be signed off work, and in some cases, we need to take this approach with children.
She also talked about other important factors for good mental health that can be ‘quick fixes’, such as having a decent night’s sleep and getting some exercise.
Every child is different
Parents and carers shared thoughts and their own experiences during the conference but the main message was that every child is different, and it is important to understand their unique story so we can best help and support them.