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  • Writer's pictureChristine McCarty


Recently, I have been doing extensive research on what triggers anxiety for a child on the spectrum. For Addy, when anxiety hits it can completely derail her. My thoughts are…if I can understand what triggers Addy’s anxiety, I along with her, can help her prepare and manage her reaction. In doing my research, I came across an article written by Kim Davis, M.S. from the Indiana University of Bloomington. In the article, “What Triggers Anxiety for an Individual with ASD,” she states the following:

“Most people can experience frustration, stress, or anxiety in everyday life situations. There are people who learn how to cope so well that stress or anxiety has little impact on them. But for others, including individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), stress and anxiety can cripple them to varying degrees. Remember, situations that create anxiety in one individual may not for another. “

Listed below are examples she lists on some common stressors that individuals with ASD might experience:

Unstructured Time: Unstructured time that has no specific rules or activity which creates boundaries or limits can be very challenging. Examples of unstructured time are:

  • Waiting for and/or riding the school bus

  • Before and after school time

  • Transitions throughout the day (place to place, person to person, topic to topic)

  • Lunch/cafeteria

  • Recess

  • Physical education

Academic Situations: Being in a classroom can be stressful for someone on the spectrum. The below examples can be even more triggering:

  • Understanding what to do and how to do it

  • Breaking down tasks

  • Writing

  • Reading

  • Organization

  • Grades

  • Presentations in class

  • Answering aloud in class

  • Tests

Sensory: Sensory issues can be triggered almost any time or anywhere daily. Whether the individual is experiencing an anxious moment or not, sensory integration challenges can overpower a person’s ability to control him or herself. Sensory situations that may provoke anxiety can include:

  • Crowds - school assemblies, concerts, field trips, grocery store, etc.

  • Space - too large, too crowded, too bright, too loud, too smelly, etc.

  • Sounds/noise

  • Natural disasters

  • Smells - cafeteria, restrooms, cleaning materials, markers, paints, colognes

  • Food - sight, texture, taste, smell, sound when eating

  • Haircuts

  • Dental or medical issues

  • Showers, bathing

  • Clothing - too tight, scratchy

  • Brushing teeth

Socialization: Social situations are already challenging for individuals with ASD and can increase anxiety in the moment or even in anticipation of an upcoming event. Some examples include:

  • Novel events - unplanned and unannounced

  • Changes in plans - daily school routine interrupted, or family plans changed

  • Adjusting personal interests with class or family plans

  • Outdoor activities - concerts, picnics, recess

  • Large gatherings - school assemblies, family gatherings

  • Young children (who are unpredictable in many ways)

  • Initiating a conversation with a peer

Routines: After a day at school where the child was able to maintain body control, listen, complete activities, and appear composed, going home and having even more expectations including typical routines, can increase anxiety and agitation. Routines such as:

  • Doing homework

  • Chores

  • Meal, bath, bedtime routines

  • Getting ready for school

By understanding what could trigger Addy has not only helped me but has helped her regulate and prepare her own self. The team and I now have a plan in place for any type of environment change. In doing this, Addy can function in a more typical manner and is a happier kid! Next blog post, I will highlight what strategies we rely on to help mitigate these triggers. Stay tuned!

Much love,

Raising Addy

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