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What Causes Anxiety in Autism?

What Causes Anxiety in Autism?

Experiencing anxiety is a natural part of life. In moderation, anxiety can help us stay motivated to reach our goals and move towards our values. However, when anxiety reaches a point where it is affecting daily life and impairing functioning it is no longer healthy or helpful.

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to danger. In ancient times, people developed anxiety to keep them alive. They could either choose to stay and fight through the danger or flee from it. While this response isn’t entirely useful in modern society, we still hold on to it.

For individuals with autism, this anxiety response can feel overwhelming to deal with. Individuals with autism experience and process anxiety in a different way due to their neurodivergence. What causes this?

Common Causes of Anxiety in Autism

First, we will start by saying that being neurodivergent does not mean anything is wrong with someone. Instead, it is just an indicator that they interact with and see the world differently than other people. Each individual person will have a set of triggers that cause them anxiety, so use this list as a general guide.


One of the most common causes of anxiety in those with autism is being overstimulated. Also known as sensory overload, this occurs when too much is happening around them. There might be too many noises, sounds, sights, or even lights. When most, if not all, of the senses are being hit with stimuli, this can lead to a very overwhelming experience for neurodivergent individuals.

Crowds are often a source of anxiety due to the amount of noise, sights, sounds, and smells happening simultaneously. If you or someone you know are dealing with sensory overload, try the following:

  • Take a break and try walking away to a quieter area, even if it’s a temporary
  • Use earplugs to help tune things out (look for earplugs that can help with misophonia, which helps with noise sensitivity).
  • After an event where you know there will be overstimulation, schedule alone time to help

Straying from the Schedule

Those who have autism prefer to keep to a set schedule. They know what to expect and when to expect it. Disruptions in routines can be a great source of anxiety

due to the fear of the unknown. To help combat this, try to create a set routine and schedule. When there are needed disruptions or changes to the schedule it is helpful to cope ahead and practice flexible thinking.

For example, if you are traveling to see a concert, try accommodating traffic, which may disrupt your arrival time. Likewise, if you know you have a doctor’s appointment, try to accommodate a disruption in the day, like the doctor running late.

While structure and routine are crucial, accommodating and anticipating, when possible, the disruptions that may feel overwhelming can help you better prepare for them.

Being Particular

Let’s face it: we all become a little nitpicky in our own lives. However, neurodivergent individuals tend to have even higher standards—not only for themselves but also for the world around them. These standards can help them feel in control and understand what they can expect. Again, it’s all about that routine.

The problem is that concrete standards and expectations often don’t account for the many external factors that can influence one of these outcomes. So, while these standards might, in theory, help an individual with autism, it can sometimes be a source of great anxiety when things don’t go as planned.

If you find that your anxiety levels are rising due to your expectations not being met, try to give yourself the grace to understand that sometimes, things don’t go as planned, and that’s okay, too.

Therapy Can Help

If you are struggling to deal with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be effective in equipping individuals with autism with coping skills to manage situational triggers of anxiety and practice cognitive flexibility. Our clinicians at the OCD & Anxiety Center are trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and will collaborate with you around your specific treatment goals. Together, we can help formulate a game plan and coping techniques so you can live a life in line with your values and reach your goals.

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