There is increasing research-based information available in the area of neurodevelopmental disorder and anxiety, as well as other mental health disorders. Neurodevelopmental disorders include Autism Spectrum Disorders, Intellectual Disabilities, Blindness/Low Vision, Deafness/Hard of Hearing, Cerebral Palsy and other neurologically based conditions, Learning Disorders, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The research is confirming what clinicians have known for some time:
- Those with neurodevelopmental disorders are at higher risk for mental health disorders, including anxiety, than those without these disorders.
- Those with neurodevelopmental disorders are likely to meet criteria for the mental health disorder for a longer period of time, meaning the symptoms persist longer.
- Those with neurodevelopmental disorders are less likely to receive mental health services than those without these disorders.
The symptoms of anxiety in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders are the same as those manifested in the general population and include:
- Excessive worry
- Irrational fears
- Discomfort interacting with or having others look at them
- Stomachaches and bowel problems
- Other physical symptoms of stress
- Sleep difficulties
- Avoidance of stressful situations
- Obsessive thinking
- Compulsive and ritualistic behaviors
Those with neurodevelopmental disorders are under a great deal of pressure to “fit in” and to function in the same manner and in the same time frame as those without these disorders. These pressures cause anxiety to escalate quickly and too much anxiety often is reflective by a “fight or flight response” and is seen as a behavioral issue.
For those who live with or work with individuals with such disorders, the following strategies may be helpful in decreasing anxiety and increasing more appropriate responses and behavior:
- Allow more time for any daily routine or task
- Talk less and use straightforward and direct language
- Minimize transitions from one place to another, one activity to another, and one person to another
- Use visual supports to help with schedules and communication even if the individual is highly verbal
- Decrease stimulation in the environment
- Establish predictable routines that are not over-stimulating
- Find alternative ways to include the individual in family, educational, and community activities without over-stimulating
- Make sure the individual is getting adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise
- Recognize the individual’s perspective may not be the same as your own perspective
- Remain calm when the individual becomes anxious and agitated—so that you may find a solution
The Anxiety Curve illustrated on The Incredible 5-Point Scale (Buron & Curtis) provides an excellent way of representing the relationship between anxiety and behavior in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. The lower curve of the illustration represents the need for the staff or parent to remain calm and manage their own anxiety. For further information, go to http://www.5pointscale.com.
- Living in Fear: Anxiety in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Dr. Scott Bellini)
- Anxiety and Panic Struggles (Dr. Kim Davis)
- What about the Mental Health of Kids with Intellectual Disability?
Julie T. Steck, Ph.D., HSPP
CRG/Children’s Resource Group
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