young boyNo one really knows why there seems to be an incredible rise in the rates of people with autism. Conservative estimates point to a 300% increase. Some of the increase is likely due to better diagnosis. And we know that autism runs in families and appears to have a genetic component. Others point to environmental stressors such as increased exposure to pesticides and hormones. But there is little certainty in the scientific community about what is happening.

Children and people with mild autism sometimes appear to others as self-contained and aloof. Others may assume that those with autism are pretty calm, cool, and collected. However, they are likely very wrong.

Those with autism may suffer increased levels of anxiety and stress because of interpersonal isolation. They feel different from other people and worry that they may be disliked or misunderstood. This may lead the child or adult with autism to withdraw or avoid. This lack of contact with others can lead to more awkwardness and lack of opportunities to practice social interactions.

Those with autism frequently report hypersensitivity to loud noises, touch, lights or other forms of sensation. When in situations that involve these areas of oversensitivity, they may also experience periods of stress and discomfort. Stress may again result in avoidance of places in which over-stimulation may occur.

Furthermore, people with autism may have trouble understanding the perspective of others. They may misinterpret communications and subtle interpersonal cues. These misunderstanding can lead to anxiety, worry, and difficulties in relationships. Withdrawal, rejection, or avoidance are natural reactions.

In previous blogs, we have described the way that fear and worry can become worse. First there is something feared which results in distress. Avoidance temporarily brings down the feelings of distress and thus feels good. This good feeling is rewarding and results in more avoidance. The next time fear is experienced, there is a strong desire for avoidance. Thus fear grows and avoidance is the natural pathway.

People with anxiety and autism can learn to slowly become exposed to what they fear, just like those with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder. They need a large dose of cognitive behavior therapy given by a patient, understanding therapist.

Photo by Leonid Mamchenkov, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.



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    Last reviewed: 14 Oct 2011

APA Reference
Smith, L. (2011). Anxiety and Autism. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 27, 2015, from


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Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. and Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. are authors of many books, including Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies and Child Psychology & Development for Dummies.

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