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Strategies for Autistic Students in Overcoming Anxiety

High school and college can come with many pressures and challenges. Because of this, anxiety is something that affects all students at some point. For autistic students and students with autism spectrum conditions, anxiety can be especially overwhelming and negatively impact the school experience. Luckily, there are many strategies you can use to reduce your anxiety and make you feel more confident and positive. Remember: you are not alone!

Signs that You’re Feeling Anxious

Anxiety can be described as “a normal response to things that threaten us,” usually involving feelings of fear and stress (Positive Partnerships). Since anxiety is a natural response to everyday stresses, a certain amount is normal. However, anxiety for autistic students can quickly become scary and overwhelming.

Students on the spectrum are also less likely to understand and share their symptoms. One helpful strategy can be understanding what anxiety feels like. If you can recognize when you feel it, you can start taking steps to feel better. Some possible symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling overwhelmed by worry
What are Common Triggers of Anxiety For Autistic Students?

Equally as important is knowing what kind of situations might cause anxiety. Although everyone is different, certain things have shown to be common triggers. Autistic students might feel intense anxiety over everyday situations or expectations at school, ranging from speaking in class to making a new friend. Below are some situations that might cause higher levels of stress:

Academic situations: reading & writing, organizing, receiving grades, presenting, speaking aloud, testing, and doing homework

Unstructured time: during transportation, before and after school, during transitions, at lunch, during general free time, when changes in plans occur

Social situations: experiencing new situations or large gatherings, initiating a conversation, adjusting personal interests, understanding others’ views

Sensory issues: crowds; new spaces, sounds, and noise; smells, etc.

How Much Anxiety is Too Much?

Now that we’ve explored possible symptoms and situations, how do you know when your anxiety is too much? The ADAA provides some examples comparing regular, everyday anxiety and signs of an anxiety disorder. When your anxiety starts having a negative effect on your social and academic life, it is important to reach out for help.

Normal Anxiety

Anxiety Disorder

Occasional worry about specific events, such as the first day of class or an exam

Constant worry without reason, which disrupts your schoolwork and social life

Embarrassment or self-consciousness during a new or uncomfortable social situation

General avoidance of common social situations for fear of being judged or embarrassed

Random cases of nervousness, feeling dizzy, or sweating from a stressful situation

Panic attacks and/or constant fear of another panic attack; feelings of terror

A panic attack is described as a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. If you feel as though you might be having an attack, ask someone for immediate help.

Strategies and Support for Anxiety: You are Not Alone!

It has been shown that students on the spectrum have more difficulty in self-reporting symptoms, especially ones they experience internally. Because of this, it is important to feel like you can reach out when you feel overwhelmed.

Anxiety affects everyone differently, but anyone can use methods to help deal with it. Below is a list of everyday strategies that could help make your high school or college experience more positive and balanced.

Eat a balanced diet and exercise: Taking care of your body can make a huge difference in your mental health. Exercise can help relieve stress and help you focus.

Take a break: When you feel overwhelmed, it is very important to take a break. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can be a great way to calm down and recenter yourself.

Take time for your favorite activities: Be sure to schedule time for things that you find fun and relaxing, for example reading a book or playing a video game.

Find out what triggers your anxiety: Try writing in a journal when you feel anxious or stressed. If you notice certain things frequently cause you stress, think about how to mitigate those situations or strategies that could help.

Do your best and put things in perspective: Remember that you are trying your best and nobody is perfect. Also try to ask yourself: is this situation as bad as I think it is? Is there anything I can do to help me feel better?

Reach out for help: You don’t need to deal with your anxiety alone. Be sure to reach out to friends and family when you need support. You can also talk to a counselor at your school and/or find a peer tutor to help manage schoolwork. If you feel you might have an anxiety disorder, you and your parent or guardian might consider therapy or psychiatry.

Are you a student who has struggled with anxiety? What other considerations would you like to see discussed? What are some additional helpful strategies?

To Learn More About Autism and Anxiety and how to get Help, Please Visit:

Indiana Resource Center for Autism: “Anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorders”
https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/anxiety-and-autism-spectrum-disorders

Learn Psychology: “The Student Guide to Surviving Anxiety and Stress in College and Beyond”
https://www.learnpsychology.org/student-stress-anxiety-guide/

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Olivia Tyson

Olivia Tyson is an educational coach who works for the ICE (Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment) Program at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts. She helps students in the classroom, as well as with homework assignments, social connections, and immersion into campus life. She also has a younger brother named Nick who has autism and attends a residential program. Olivia enjoys teaching, studying and creating art, and spending time with her family.

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