Handling Anxiety in Teens with Autism

By Brittany Lehane May 13, 2015

This week I wanted to write about a trend I’ve noticed this year. Recently, I have seen an increase in students who are on the autism spectrum struggling with severe anxiety. It’s not uncommon for people on the spectrum to present with anxiety but this was a new challenge for me. I work with high school students and at this age there are many things to be anxious about. Freshman have just transitioned to a new building which can be anxiety provoking. Older students face the uncertainty of what happens after they leave the comfort of high school.

Anxiety is very difficult for anyone to face and can be especially challenging for students with disabilities. Some of the challenges my students dealt with were understanding their emotions and symptoms. Their bodies felt so overwhelmed and they did not know why. Some students even became physically sick with headaches and vomiting. This caused school absences and difficulty with the smallest day to day tasks. Many parents said they were seeing regression at home with skills the students had once mastered. I was definitely seeing regression in communication skills as well. I shared in the parent’s concerns as they felt frustrated and worried that we were starting over or moving backwards. Communication is a challenge for these students and in moments of overwhelming anxiety it was at times impossible to clearly communicate.

Working as a Team

I worked closely with the teachers and school psychologist to develop a plan of how we could teach our students about their anxiety and methods to cope. One way our team handled these challenges was using visuals and social stories to break down the difficult concept of anxiety. We had to use language that the students could understand. Instead of saying anxiety, we called it worries. We wanted to explain that the feelings have a name and that everyone has worries. We talked about what the worries feel like and that sometimes they can make our bodies hurt. This part is important because it helps the student understand what is happening to their body- which is scary in itself. Once the students could recognize what the anxiety feels like they can start using some strategies to calm down.

Using Visual Support

Social story for anxiety

Social story for anxiety


Our social story includes some coping strategies we started with such as taking a walk, drinking water, or taking a break. We also focus on teaching functional communication, because as I mentioned earlier, it was really tough for these students to communicate in these moments. We had a script ready for them made of visuals along with words. This was a visual reminder to tell a teacher “I am feeling worried and I need to talk with someone”. Advocating for themselves is so important in high school. These students will now be meeting with the school psychologist to continue to work on understanding their worries. I will continue to work closely to provide visual support so the students understand and communicate with the psychologist. There is no one way to address these challenges but a team approach has served us well.

There are many more challenges to face and I’m always looking for strategies. Share your knowledge with us on Twitter, Pinterest, or Facebook! Sign up for our mailing list here to stay updated with our latest therapy tips, app announcements, and blog posts.

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