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Learning to Recognize the Inner Anxiety of My Son on the Autism Spectrum

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My son has anxiety. It is far more than just a bit of worry that can be soothed away with some reassuring words of encouragement. It plays a big part in his life, and it is important we take it seriously.

His worries seemed to grow as he was growing up. But at the time we didn’t realize all the different behaviors we saw were driven by his anxiety. And the more we tried to overcome it and force him into situations we thought he should be able to cope with, the worse we made it — because we didn’t take his anxiety seriously. We didn’t realize the effect his anxiety had on his emotions and behaviors.

So we bowed down to pressure. Pressure to make him conform to what was considered “normal.” Pressure from professionals who didn’t have the answers we were so desperately seeking. And pressure from ourselves to live up to the perfect family image everyone expected.

Pressure to fit our son into society’s neat little boxes.

But in fact, we quickly learned that the key to us being able to move forward as a family unit was far more about us learning to accept and embrace his differences as much as anything else. Learning to understand that his anxiety was a part of him. We had to learn how to unpick his behavior to see what was really going on underneath the surface.

Sometimes you can see the signs of his anxiety, even if you don’t know him inside and out like we do. It might be etched on his face, in his body language, in his movements. At times it seems to me like it completely takes over his body.

But his anxiety also has a side not everyone sees. This kind of anxiety disguises itself and takes many forms, and shows many faces.

We find ourselves putting labels on our children to give meaning to behaviors we may or may not understand, like “challenging behavior,” “disruptive,” avoidant.” But I fear that these labels might box our kids in, making us set rigid expectations for them in a world that should actually be far more flexible for children on the autism spectrum. I think what we should be doing is looking at how we, as the adults, respond to our children’s anxiety. How we reflect on our own practice, honestly, and without fear of criticism or failure. Believe me when I say that over the years I have made many mistakes. I have got things wrong, and spent many a sleepless night thinking how I could have handled things better. But when I think about it, those mistakes taught me so much.

We need to ask ourselves if we are flexible enough (because when fire meets fire, no one wins, I can tell you). We also need to be sharing good practices, sharing our successes and our failures. Working collaboratively with parents, and talking to colleagues openly. Bouncing ideas off each other in order to support our children effectively as a team.

We need to see beyond the labels.

Understanding that often their behavior might be telling us that something is wrong. And often if sensory issues can be ruled out, then a potential factor might be anxiety in disguise.

Anxiety can make kids isolate themselves and withdraw, often getting overlooked, confusing us to think that all is well, but their parents report seeing a different child at home. Anxiety can cause headaches or the feeling of being sick. Anxiety might affect a child’s ability to follow verbal instructions or pay attention in class.

I think we need to be open-minded and far more flexible. We need to see beyond the behavior and play detective.

We need to think outside of the box and make real accommodations in the classroom that are meaningful and not just ticking a box for a policy.

We should understand that one size doesn’t fit all, and every child is different. And see things from the child’s perspective and not just our own.

And hopefully, as a result, it will help ease the inner anxiety my son and kids who feel similarly might experience.

A version of this post originally appeared on

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Originally published: February 7, 2017
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