Imagine living in a world that changes day-to-day. That doesn’t sound too much different from reality right? Now say that this change involves disastrous sounds, alien people, and foreign territories. Sound like your typical, every day transition? Generally, this is how persons with autism experience change, and it is why they are so resistant to it.
When we see one disorder occurring at the same time as another, we call it comorbid. With autism, one such comorbid disorder is that of anxiety. Anxiety is defined as being a nervous disorder characterized by extreme unease and discomfort. Often it is seen in the form of obsessive-compulsive behaviors and panic attacks.
Persons with autism are known for their resistance to change. It is because of this that anxiety is often overlooked as an actual disorder when it co-occurs with autism. Panic in response to a change in routine may be looked at as obstinate behavior when in fact the person in question feels crippling anxiety.
Part of the problem with diagnosing anxiety in autism comes from the fact that such individuals have difficulty describing their emotional state; as a result, professionals don’t get a clear understanding of what exactly is going on in their heads. However, the error has been attributed to diagnostic tests that fail to acknowledge the many ways in which anxiety manifests itself.
The National Institute of Mental Health is currently working on challenging the diagnostic criteria for anxiety so that they can treat it more successfully with pharmaceuticals and behavioral therapy. For the autistic community, such a change could mean access to the kinds of solutions that would relieve the 63% of afflicted persons that experience overwhelming panic on a nearly daily basis. Hopefully, NIMH will pull through, but in the meantime it is important that autism professionals familiarize themselves with the trademarks of anxiety so as to improve the quality of care for their clients.
Sara Power, Fordham University