Panel addresses anxiety in autism

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Willington - posted Mon., Oct. 28, 2013
Donna Swanson (right) gets a hug from the youngest panelist, Allie, 12. Photos by Annie Gentile.
Donna Swanson (right) gets a hug from the youngest panelist, Allie, 12. Photos by Annie Gentile.

Anxiety - each person experiences it in various ways, to different degrees and for different reasons. Yet for a person diagnosed on the autism spectrum, anxiety is often a constant occurrence in life, making it difficult to form and maintain relationships and to function socially.

On Oct. 19 the Success Special Education PTO (SEPTO), which represents children with special needs in the northeastern Connecticut area, welcomed a panel of autism experts from the Canton, Conn.-based FOCUS Center for Autism to the Willington Public Library. The panel included five young people ages 12 to 33 who shared their experiences navigating school, work, and adulthood while also dealing with anxiety disorders and other symptoms of autism.

Donna Swanson, Executive Director and co-founder of FOCUS, said one of the biggest mistakes school administrators and others make in dealing with young people on the autism spectrum is to focus on their problem behaviors. “It’s anxiety that causes the behaviors, and so if you only focus on behaviors, it creates more anxiety for the child, resulting in more behaviors,” she said. At FOCUS, the goal is to first address the anxiety to get that under control, then move on to behaviors. “It’s sort of the same idea as when we put blinders on a horse to block out interferences,” she said.

Thirty-year-old Emily, a panelist and team leader of the group, said anxiety was very much the issue for her when she was in school. She recalled a mandatory class trip to New York in high school that created mounting anxiety for her as the date approached. In a fight-or-flee response on the day of the trip, she hid in the girls’ lavatory until after the bus left, then came out and said she missed the bus. She said that such anxiety-induced behaviors resulted in her being diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It was years before she was eventually more accurately diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

Andrew, another panelist, said his greatest challenge right now, at age 33, is finding a niche in the real world. He spoke about his desire to make friends when he was in high school. While he was an active member of the track team, he found it very hard to fit in socially.  As an adult he strongly resists efforts to act as an adult, preferring at times to retreat into a fantasy world.

“He doesn’t really want to grow up and that’s a big worry for us,” said Swanson. “Part of what he’s talking about in not being able to fit in is the depression that often follows. The social element is very important.”

Most of those who attended the panel presentation were parents or family members of children with autism. Many of them said they came to the session out of concern for their own children who were transitioning into or out of school, or looking for ways to help their children deal with their anxieties and function socially. Several found the panelists’ stories to be familiar ones, and went on to share their own stories with the panel or with other parents during the lunch break.

Equally important were the reactions from at least two teenagers diagnosed on the spectrum who attended the presentation with their parents.  One young man, who admitted he had been coerced into attending with his mother, said that he was glad he came because it felt good to know there were others out there like him.

Upcoming Success SEPTO events include a Nov. 2 presentation by Dr. Michael  D. Powers, director of the Center for Children with Special Needs, located in Glastonbury. Powers specializes in the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of individuals with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. On Nov. 20, Success SEPTO will welcome Dr. Kristen D’Eramo, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of clinical services at the Center for Children with Special Needs. D’Eramo provides psychological evaluations with an emphasis on early identification and treatment of autism spectrum disorders.

Success SEPTO sponsor Willington Pizza provided pizza lunches for their programs,  which are held at  the Willington Public Library. For more information, visit their website at www.successsepto.org.


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