Anxiety and autism

What is anxiety??

Anxiety is similar to fear, but less clear-cut. It's not like being scared because you see a big spider or you're about to have an accident. It's often a fear that something will go wrong, and sometimes you don't even know why. It provokes unpleasant physical sensations. It's normal to feel anxious sometimes, but it's not normal to feel anxious all the time. Professional help can be sought if this is the case. Autistic people experience anxiety more often than non-autistic people, and for many, it's one of their biggest challenges.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a lot like fear. In fact, both feelings can cause the same physical sensations: stomach ache, racing heartbeat, sweating, etc. However, when you’re afraid, you can figure out what you’re afraid of. For example, a person might say “I was afraid of the snake”. The object of fear is precise. Anxiety is less precise. It’s a fuzzy feeling of fear. For example, a person might say “I’m afraid something bad will happen to me while I’m traveling”. In this second case, it’s anxiety because the “something bad” is not precise.

Link to autism

20% of autistic adults meet the diagnostic criteria for some form of anxiety disorder.
9% of non-autistic adults meet the diagnostic criteria for some form of anxiety disorder.
40% of autistic children meet the diagnostic criteria for some form of anxiety disorder.


When to consult

Anxiety can be a normal phenomenon. Anxiety is a versatile fear. It tells your brain to pay attention to possible sources of danger and failure, even those we don’t yet know about. Anxiety keeps us on our toes. Here are a few examples of safe anxiety.


Fear of “failing school” can keep us on our toes, helping us to understand the objectives of each course and study for exams.


Being afraid of “not doing it right” when joining a new daycare center helps you to be vigilant enough to understand the new routine and integrate it well.


Being afraid of “not doing the job right” in a job keeps you on your toes and on task.

However, when anxiety causes symptoms such as loss of concentration, tremors, difficulty sleeping and digestive problems, help should be sought. These symptoms impair alertness. Anxiety thus becomes counterproductive and leads to distress. Consider consulting a psychologist or family doctor.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer