Is there any advice to help you deal with autism and anxiety together?

Teachers need more information and training to help them understand how to deal with autistic students who show signs of anxiety, according to Australian researchers. The antipodean team found that teachers respond differently to anxiety when a student is on the autistic spectrum, and they are more likely to encourage those without autism to face their fears.

Autism is a lifelong disability that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. There are approximately 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, according to the National Autistic Society. At least half of students on the autism spectrum experience anxiety, but there is little research on how teachers respond to these children. The team from Griffith University, Brisbane, set out to compare teacher responses to anxiety-related behaviour in students with, and without, a diagnosis of autism.

Our current thinking is that the social anxiety is being seen as characteristic of the autism, rather than a mental health issue

Dawn Adams


The team gave 64 teachers an online survey. When dealing with students with autism who were showing signs of general or separation anxiety, the teachers said they were more likely to be overprotective or use avoidance strategies, which may increase the child’s anxiety levels in the long-term. However, this was not the case when autistic students showed signs of social anxiety, or when teachers responded to non-autistic students. Then they would be more likely to respond with ‘autonomy-promoting’ responses, such as encouraging problem-solving and rewarding independence or bravery.

’Our current thinking is that the social anxiety is being seen as characteristic of the autism, rather than a mental health issue, so teachers respond to that differently,’ suggests lead researcher Dawn Adams. Teachers may recognise general or separation anxiety as a mental health issue, and therefore a potential trigger for behavioural issues and/or meltdown. How these different responses affect students isn’t clear. ‘This reflects the fact that we haven’t looked into whether, for example, reassurance is as unhelpful in managing anxiety for students with autism as we know it is for students without autism,’ says Dawn. ‘Longer term, there may be difficulties with school attendance and achievement.’

An image showing college students moving around man at desk in a classroom

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There may also be specific issues for teachers to consider within a science classroom where experimentation is encouraged. ‘Students with autism who are experiencing anxiety can really struggle with uncertainty,’ explains Dawn, ‘so providing a structure to the lesson, as well as a clear plan of what the student can do if they are concerned or if something goes wrong, can help. Ideally, the student would work towards developing that plan themselves, as that is a skill that would help them to manage their anxiety going forwards.’

She advises teachers to remember that autistic students experiencing anxiety may need additional time to process instructions and often benefit from visual backups. Students may also experience sensory issues around noise, smell or touch (for example gloves). Teachers should check with the student first so they don’t feel they have to do something that causes them to feel anxious, she adds.

Dawn says more research is needed to enable effective continuing professional development (CPD) to be offered to teachers. ‘Teachers do have access to CPD around autism but the realisation of how common anxiety is in individuals with autism is relatively new, so many teachers may not know about it,’ she says. Her team has provided free CPD to more than 500 teachers in Brisbane, and has made resources available online.

Back in class

Lorcan Kenny, of the Discover research network at Autistica, the UK’s autism research charity, welcomes the study. ‘We need more research into how teachers react to students, as their own reports might be inaccurate,’ he says. ‘We also need to know the best ways for teachers to respond to autistic children with anxiety – this may be different to supporting those without autism. This research could provide teachers with much needed evidence-based autism training in the future.’

Rob Butler, who was a special school science teacher for 20 years, believes that many teachers would find it hard to recognise the different types of anxiety, particularly in mainstream schools where classes are larger and individual contact time per student is less. ‘What’s more, science has its own set of anxieties linked to the uncertainty of investigations and students’ difficulties in applying knowledge to unfamiliar situations,’ he adds.

Rob suggests that more training in dealing with autistic students in general would be helpful. ‘[It] is only briefly touched upon during initial teacher education and then crowded out of a busy school calendar by the emphasis on results and CPD related to performance measures. When I put on my SEND workshops for science learning partnerships [these include autism], I get a lot of interest,’ he says. ’As a special school teacher, we had plenty of CPD as specialist practitioners, but this was still inadequate because of the sheer breadth of the subject. I’m sure there is a need for more CPD for both mainstream and special school teachers.’

Alison Weir, head of education at the National Association of Special Educational Needs, agrees. ‘Teachers in general could really benefit from high-quality CPD in special educational needs including autism,’ she says.

Currently, there is no specific requirement for teachers in the UK to undertake CPD relating to special needs. The DfE commissioned the Autism Education Trust to develop training resources for schools at a range of levels; Level 1 was initially offered free to schools but this is no longer the case.