Anxiety and autism was the topic last month when I presented at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute in Westborough MA to 100 or so Therapists, Psychologists and BCBAs. This topic is very near and dear to my heart, as I have worked with many children and youth with autism with anxiety.  Imagine not being able to communicate that something was bothering you…that is what many people with autism face.

Anxious behaviour happens because it is the only way that a person knows how to avoid something that they find uncomfortable. I described the types of things that I have encountered in my practice with people who were engaging in anxious behaviour. Things like severe self harm, intense aggression and/or property destruction. One of the adults that I work with will do all of these things in order to avoid loud and crowded places because that is what has worked for him. As you can imagine for many of the people engaging in anxious behaviour the result was injury to themselves or someone else. There are lots of evidence-based tools that can empower someone who is engaging in anxious behaviour with a better way to get a need met. A better way that keeps him/her as well as everyone else in the vicinity safe from harm. The key is finding the right one for each and every person.


The workshop was all about identifying patterns and triggers for a person’s anxious behaviour and then developing a customized plan to help them learn coping skills. After all, we are always going to encounter things that make us uncomfortable if we are going to interact in the real world. The best thing we can do is empower people who have anxious behaviour with a better way to get his or her needs met. With the person I described above we worked on teaching him to ask for a quiet space.  Because he had limited verbal skills we taught him to touch a picture symbol for that request. It has to work just as well if not better than what he has been doing in the past. For more on designing customized behaviour intervention plans read another one of my articles here.

An intervention that is based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) would first and foremost get to the bottom of what is going on for that unique person and develop a customized plan that addresses that person’s unique situation. This plan would also factor in the person’s unique areas of need and strengths which will only help maximize learning potential. For more info about my workshop on autism and anxiety contact me.  For regular updates like this and other topics that relate to working with individuals with autism sign up to my newsletter.