Anxiety can assume unusual forms in people with autism — turning uncertainty, or even a striped couch, into a constant worry. New tools may help identify these hidden fears.
There are many reasons it took nearly six years for Kapothanasis to get the help he needed. Doctors may have assumed that his aggression and tendency to hurt himself were part of his autism, Siegel says. Traits that characterize autism — including social deficits, stereotyped movements and restricted interests — can mask or mimic symptoms of anxiety. During a visit to an outpatient clinic, for example, Siegel points out a nonverbal young woman with autism who repeatedly traces a pattern in the air with her hands. At first glance, her gestures resemble ‘stimming,’ the repetitive behaviors often seen in autism. But she does it at specific times, Siegel says, suggesting a ritual related to obsessive-compulsive disorder — a form of anxiety.
Compounding the problem, many people on the spectrum, like Kapothanasis, cannot tell their caregivers or doctors what they are feeling or thinking. Those who can may still struggle to identify and understand their own emotions — a phenomenon called alexithymia — or to articulate them to others. Because of these factors, the clinical questionnaires designed to ferret out anxiety traits in neurotypical individuals are woefully inadequate for many people with autism. The tests may also miss children with autism, who can have unusual phobias, such as a fear of striped couches or exposed pipes.
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