Rooted in Fear: Anxiety in Autistic Teens

Home Autism Rooted in Fear: Anxiety in Autistic Teens

Up to 80% of autistic teens also experience intense anxiety symptoms. According to the Interactive Autism Network, “because of the social differences experienced by teens on the spectrum, such as trouble initiating or maintaining a conversation or adherence to strict rituals or schedules, additional stress to any of these activities may result in feelings of anxiety, which can negatively affect multiple areas of one’s life, including school, family, and work.” The prevalence of anxiety in autistic teens is often overlooked as it manifests in different ways and can be difficult to name as the source of externalized behavior.

Manifestations of Anxiety

While Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, it has a high comorbidity with a variety of anxiety disorders, including Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Social Anxiety, General Anxiety, and Specific Phobias as many of the symptoms overlap. Social anxiety is often associated with social withdrawal and difficulty understanding social cues. Obsessive-Compulsive patterns are associated with repetitive behaviors and the need for highly structured routines. Many professionals are more likely to describe panic attacks as meltdowns when they ignore the underlying causes of their behavior. One reason for this is that anxiety in autistic teens is often a sensory experience rather than an emotional experience.

Teens with autism are more in tune with physical manifestations of anxiety, such as a racing pulse, shakiness, sweating, restlessness, muscle tension, nausea, and chest tightness. Chronic stress leads to problems with insomnia, irritable bowels, blood pressure, headaches, and fatigue. As a result, they are more likely to report symptoms to a medical professional than a mental health professional.

Situational Anxiety

A common feature of anxiety in autistic teens is fear of transitions, new environments, new people, and disruptions in routine. Leaving one’s comfort zone induces worrying thoughts, but autistic teenagers have a tendency to go into fight or flight mode when situations become unfamiliar or feel unsafe. As a result, they may have more difficulty adapting at home and in school, making friends and joining in social activities, and breaking their usual routines to try something new. Autistic teens are more likely to blame anxiety on situations than understand the themes of the situation that affect their responses.

Situations that Increase Anxiety

Social interactions

Difficulty with self-expression, both verbal and nonverbal

Difficulty understanding someone else’s perspective

Sensory overload

Not understanding academic curriculum

Restricting self-stimulating behaviors or rituals

Trying new foods, activities, or places

New Focus Academy can Help

Our goal is to help students

    • Identify what emotions they are feeling and specific fears that contribute to anxiety
    • Learn skills that help manage their anxiety, using mindfulness, self-soothing techniques, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
    • Practice other ways of expressing their emotions through creativity and physical activity
    • Develop adaptive independent living skills and self-advocacy skills



New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism and anxiety disorders. Our professionals understand the intersection and overlap between these issues and follow a holistic approach in addressing both at the same time. The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have more positive social interactions, feel more organized, and gain a clearer sense of judgement that minimizes anxiety when stressful situations occur. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. We can help your family today!