Indicators of Anxiety

It is unlikely that a child or young person with autism will verbalise their anxiety. They may not yet possess the emotional insight to recognise anxiety, and in addition they may not have the language skills to explain how they feel. It is important to remember that even students who possess good language skills will often lose the ability to communicate effectively when experiencing stress. This can then exacerbate the situation as the student may become further frustrated by the inability to articulate feelings.

It is therefore the responsibility of school staff to observe the student and be aware of the indicators of anxiety. These indicators will be individual to each student; some will show very obvious signs of anxiety (e.g. shouting, running from room) while others will be more passive (e.g. blank facial expression but appears pale and does not engage in classroom activity).

Many students will show early signs of anxiety but others may suddenly escalate to more extreme behaviours.

Signs of fight, flight or freeze are often evident:

  • fight’ signs may include aggressive language or behaviours;
  • flight’ signs may include hiding under a desk or running from the classroom;
  • freeze’ signs may include disengagement in classroom activities and interactions.

Some indicators of anxiety include:

PHYSIOLOGICAL SIGNS

  • Sweating
  • Heavy breathing
  • Change in pallor
  • Watery eyes
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches; nausea
  • Fatigue; reported change in sleep pattern
  • Change in appetite
  • Going to the toilet more frequently

BEHAVIOURAL SIGNS

  • Irritability
  • Shouting at others
  • Inappropriate language towards staff and classmates
  • Muttering under breath
  • Physical aggression
  • Increase in repetitive behaviours e.g. flicking fingers in front of eyes, pacing, repetitive noises
  • Increase in rigid routines and rituals
  • Increase in obsessional thoughts
  • Hiding/escape
  • Refusal to complete assigned work
  • Decreased attendance at school/school refusal
  • Self-injury