New guide to help autistic children in West Sussex manage anxiety

Dr Sebastian Gaigg with Jane Crawford and Helen Cottell from the county council Autism and Social Communication Team
Dr Sebastian Gaigg with Jane Crawford and Helen Cottell from the county council Autism and Social Communication Team

A new guide containing the latest research on treating anxiety in autism is being delivered to every school in West Sussex.

Around 40 per cent of autistic children, young people and adults are believed to have one or more anxiety disorder, compared to ten to 15 per cent of the general population.

'An evidence based guide to anxiety in autism' has been launched

'An evidence based guide to anxiety in autism' has been launched

Lesser known is the fact that anxiety is not simply a part of autism - it is an independent disorder that can be treated in its own right.

With this in mind, City, University of London and West Sussex County Council’s autism and social communication team have joined forces to produce a unique and concise guide to help teachers and professionals make informed decisions about how to promote and protect the mental health of autistic children.

‘An evidence based guide to anxiety in autism’ was launched last week at the Hawth in Crawley, and is being delivered to every school in West Sussex.

It pulls together the latest research and practice for improving emotional wellbeing in autistic children.

Richard Burrett, deputy leader at the county council and cabinet member for education and skills, said: “Every primary and secondary school in the county will have the chance to benefit from this exciting joint piece of work and engage in the new ideas presented in it. I hope it can help teachers to help young people manage their anxieties and live fulfilling lives.”

Heightened and intensive feelings of fear can often be hard to identify as anxiety in individuals with autism. This is because it can present in an unusual way, such as excessive fear of very specific objects or unusual worry about a change in routine.

Such expressions of anxiety might be dismissed as part of autism, rather than co-occurring anxiety. However, when this distinction is identified and addressed it can lead to major improvements to an individual’s quality of life.

The new resource outlines the recent progress made in identifying some key causes of anxiety in autism, such as sensory processing differences and difficulties in understanding and regulating one’s own emotions. These differences can often make the world more uncertain and unpredictable for autistic people.

The guide outlines established ways of helping autistic children manage their emotional wellbeing, based on the latest research literature as well as the experience-based practices established in many schools.

Hard copies will be available in schools and electronically to anyone they will benefit. A handful of copies have already been sent and the early feedback is encouraging:

Lou Gatford, assistant head at Worthing High School, said: “Highly informative with a range of practical suggestions for both home and school. The links to further resources are especially useful as we continue to strive to improve our provision in this area of need.”

Susie Tichband, SENDCO north, West Sussex Alternative Provision College, added: “This clearly written guide is grounded in evidence-based research, giving an insight into the anxieties linked to autism. It also provides a wealth of practical strategies including a detailed toolbox of accessible resources.”

Dr Sebastian Gaigg, of the autism research group at City, University of London said: “Research is beginning to tell us what the likely causes are of anxiety in autism, and the experience of schools highlights many strategies that can be effective in supporting the emotional wellbeing of children.

“The aim of our guide is to help parents, teachers and other professionals better understand why certain strategies are often effective in helping children manage their emotions, why the same strategies might not always work, and what other strategies might be explored. Ultimately we want to help professionals make informed decisions on how best to support individual children.”

The guide will form the basis for talks to schools and parents by the council’s autism and social communication team.