Anxiety in Neurodivergent Children: Understanding and Helping

a child with autism  using an adaptive communication  device
Explore the world of anxiety in neurodivergent children, uncovering unique challenges and strategies for managing anxiety. From identifying triggers to teaching resilience-building techniques, we help caregivers support neurodivergent children on their journey to thriving despite anxiety. Discover the power of understanding, patience, and the right tools in helping neurodivergent kids navigate their feelings and daily life with confidence.
July 31, 2023

Anxiety is a common experience for people of all ages, but it can be particularly challenging for children on the autism spectrum and other neurodivergent conditions. Neurodivergent children, including those with autism, often face unique anxieties and difficulties in managing them. Let’s explore the signs of anxiety in neurodivergent children, identify common triggers, and discuss strategies to help them recognize and manage their anxiety.

Understanding Anxiety in Neurodivergent Children

Neurodivergent children, such as those with autism, share many worries and fears with typically developing children. However, they may also experience anxiety related to specific triggers that may not affect typically developing children. These triggers can include disruptions to routines, unfamiliar social situations, difficulties in understanding others' thoughts and feelings, and limited access to their special interests.

When neurodivergent children and teenagers learn practical skills to reduce their anxiety, it can have a positive impact on their daily lives. By understanding the signs of anxiety in neurodivergent children, caregivers can effectively support and empower them.

Signs of Anxiety in Neurodivergent Children

Recognizing anxiety in neurodivergent children can be challenging as their anxiety symptoms may overlap with common characteristics of their condition, such as stimming, special interests, and resistance to changes in routine. Additionally, neurodivergent children may have difficulty identifying and expressing their own anxious thoughts and feelings. Instead, their anxiety may manifest through challenging behaviors.

Some common signs of anxiety in neurodivergent children include:

  • Sleep disturbances: Increased difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Meltdowns or emotional outbursts: Heightened emotional reactions to stressors.
  • Avoidance or withdrawal: A desire to avoid social situations or isolate themselves.
  • Self-harming behaviors: Engaging in actions like head-banging, scratching the skin, or hand-biting.

It is important to remember that anxiety is a natural part of life, but there are strategies and approaches that can help neurodivergent children manage their anxiety and build resilience.

Identifying Anxiety Triggers in Neurodivergent Children

Understanding what triggers anxiety in neurodivergent children is crucial to reducing their anxiety and helping them manage it effectively. Since neurodivergent children may struggle with recognizing and managing their emotions, caregivers need to pay attention to their signals and identify the specific situations or factors that cause anxiety.

Some common anxiety triggers in neurodivergent children include:

  • Changes in routine: Disruptions to established schedules or expectations.
  • Changes in environment: New settings or alterations to familiar surroundings.
  • Unfamiliar social situations: Events or gatherings with new people or places.
  • Sensory sensitivities: Reactions to specific noises, lights, flavors, or textures.
  • Fear of specific situations or objects: Apprehension towards activities or items they find challenging or frightening.
  • Times of transition: Periods of change, such as starting a new school year or puberty.

Once anxiety triggers are identified, caregivers can develop strategies to help neurodivergent children manage their anxiety in these situations. This may involve teaching children to recognize anxiety, encouraging relaxation techniques, using visual tools, and providing opportunities for practice.

Helping Neurodivergent Children Recognize Anxiety

One of the first steps in helping neurodivergent children manage their anxiety is to teach them to recognize the physical sensations associated with anxiety. This understanding can enable them to identify and communicate their anxiety more effectively.

To help your child recognize anxiety, you can engage in activities that promote body awareness. For example, you could draw an outline of a person's body and ask your child to draw or write what happens in each part of their body when they feel scared or worried. By visually mapping out their physical responses to anxiety, children can become more attuned to their own emotions.

Relaxation and Calming Strategies for Neurodivergent Children

Teaching neurodivergent children relaxation and calming strategies is an essential part of anxiety management. These strategies can provide them with tools to calm down when they start feeling anxious or stressed. Here are some techniques that can be effective:

  • Counting and breathing: Encouraging your child to count slowly to 10 or take five deep breaths can help them regulate their breathing and shift their focus away from anxiety-provoking thoughts.
  • Physical activity: Engaging in physical activities like running or jumping on a trampoline can release tension and promote a sense of calm.
  • Engaging with special interests: Allowing your child to immerse themselves in their favorite activities or objects can provide a sense of comfort and distraction during anxious moments.
  • Creating a calm space: Designating a quiet and peaceful area in the house where your child can retreat during times of anxiety can be beneficial.
  • Reading or listening to favorite books or music: Encouraging your child to read their favorite book or listen to calming music can help them relax and find solace.

It is important to introduce these strategies to your child when they are calm and provide opportunities for practice. With time and practice, they can learn to apply these techniques independently when they feel anxious.

Visual Tools to Prepare for Anxious Situations

Visual supports and social stories can be powerful tools for preparing neurodivergent children for situations that trigger anxiety. These tools provide visual cues and narratives that help children understand what to expect and how to navigate challenging situations.

For example, if your child experiences anxiety when being dropped off at school, you can create a visual schedule with photos of their daily activities, including walking through the school gate, sitting in the classroom, and playing during recess. This visual representation can reassure your child that they will be safe and engaged throughout the day. Additionally, you can include photos of what you will be doing while they are at school to reinforce the idea that you will return to pick them up.

If your child struggles with changes in routine, a daily or weekly visual schedule can help them anticipate and prepare for upcoming changes. By visually displaying the altered routine and reviewing it regularly with your child, you can reduce their anxiety and provide a sense of predictability.

It is important to tailor these visual tools to your child's preferences and learning style. Some children may benefit from more advanced notice of changes, while others may find too much warning overwhelming. By understanding your child's needs, you can create visual supports that best support their anxiety management.

Practicing Handling Anxious Situations

Providing opportunities for neurodivergent children to practice handling anxious situations can help them develop confidence and resilience. By simulating anxiety-provoking scenarios in a controlled environment, children can become familiar with the challenges they may face and develop effective coping mechanisms.

For example, if going to get a haircut triggers anxiety for your child, consider arranging a practice visit during a quieter time. This allows your child to become familiar with the environment and process without feeling overwhelmed. Similarly, role-playing social situations and taking turns playing different roles can help your child feel more prepared and comfortable in real-life interactions.

During these practice sessions, it is important to offer support, encouragement, and praise. By acknowledging their efforts and progress, you can boost their confidence and motivation to tackle anxiety-provoking situations.

Seeking Professional Support

While the strategies discussed can be effective in managing anxiety in neurodivergent children, it is important to remember that every child is unique. Some children may require additional support from professionals specializing in neurodiversity and mental health.

Psychologists and mental health occupational therapists can provide valuable guidance and interventions tailored to the specific needs of neurodivergent children. Cognitive behavior therapy, therapies involving gradual exposure, social stories, and relaxation training are some of the approaches these professionals may utilize to reduce anxiety symptoms.

If you believe your child's anxiety is significantly impacting their daily life, consult with a mental health professional or pediatrician to explore the option of medication. Medication is typically recommended when other strategies have not sufficiently reduced anxiety levels.


Anxiety is a common challenge for neurodivergent children, particularly those on the autism spectrum. By understanding the signs of anxiety, identifying triggers, and implementing effective strategies, caregivers can support their children in managing anxiety and fostering resilience. Through visual tools, relaxation techniques, and opportunities for practice, neurodivergent children can develop the skills necessary to navigate anxious situations with confidence. Remember, seeking professional support is always an option when additional assistance is needed. With patience, understanding, and the right tools, we can empower neurodivergent children to thrive and overcome their anxieties.