Autistic children and young people can experience a high base level of anxiety every day. Here we look at the causes of anxiety and how you can help.

little boy frowns as he sits at his desk at school

What may cause anxiety for autistic pupils?

Imagine you have a job interview and you’re nervous about it. On the way you get stuck in traffic and you might be late. You need to use the toilet before you go in, but you won't have time. You'll just have to wait.

This is the sort of cumulative effect that can happen to children and young people on the autism spectrum. From the outside it can seem like they have been upset by something simple, but anxiety may have been building for some time.

There are some common themes when talking about the causes of anxiety. However, everyone is different and the best thing is to get to know the child or young person you are working with.

Here are some possible reasons why a pupil might be anxious.

Coping with change

This can be something big such as starting or changing school or a small change like having to sit in a different seat in the classroom or a change in teacher. 

Autistic children and young people need routine as it gives them the structure and predictability that helps them to make sense of the world around them. 

Sensory needs

Autistic pupils may have a range of sensory needs. They might experience sensory input in one or more of the seven senses differently.

Think about situations in school where there is a lot of sensory information. Consider the dining hall, where there are:

  • crowds of people
  • different food smells
  • lots of noise such as chatting, laughing, chairs scraping and cutlery clanging
  • foods with different tastes and textures
  • tables, chairs and groups of pupils that make it difficult for you to move through the hall. 

This can be an overwhelming place for a child or young person on the autism.

teacher and student talk, sitting side by side on grass in the playground with their back to a fence

Social anxiety

Autistic pupils can have difficulty with social interaction and communication, making the school environment stressful, particularly at unstructured times such as break and lunch times. Just because a child or young person is autistic, it doesn't mean they are not self-aware and won’t worry about getting social situations wrong. They may have had their confidence knocked many times, making them more anxious.

Read more about social skills in young children and adolescents.

Difficulty understanding emotions

Autistic pupils can find understanding their own emotions difficult, and may experience them differently to you.

Sometimes feelings and emotions can manifest in a way that is not what you expect. For example, someone could appear happy and excited about an up-coming event, and this may might merge into anxiety, leading to unexpected challenging behaviour.

girl with her hands at her waist talks to an adults in the playground at school

How to help autistic children with anxiety

It stands to reason that someone is going to be less likely to learn and engage in lessons if they are highly anxious. Here are some ways you can help:

Read more about ways you can help autistic pupils in the classroom.

Pathological demand avoidance (PDA)

Children and young people with a demand avoidant profile are driven to avoid demands and expectations due to an anxiety-based need to be in control. For these pupils, it’s important to remember that even demands that are regular daily events can provoke extreme levels of anxiety.

You will need to use different strategies when working with a child or young person with PDA at your school. Read a reference booklet for health, education and social care practitioners.

More help from our charity

Teaching autism awareness 

Safeguarding

Autism, stress and anxiety online training module

Myworld free teaching resources

Network autism - Anxiety and autism in the classroom

Other resources

Simple Strategies for Supporting Children with PDA at School

Beating Anxiety - What Young People on the Autism Spectrum Need to Know

When my worries get too big!

Understanding and managing behavioural problems - University of Leicester video in English (also in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali)

The Panicosaurus

The Play Doctors

Last reviewed: 25 May 2017