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Be Well, Think Well: An Overview of Anxiety


This resource, part of the Be Well, Think Well resource collection, provides information explaining anxiety, signs and symptoms of anxiety, differences between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Autism, as well as information about what panic attacks could look and feel like for individuals.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone feels. Anxiety helps us react the right away when we’re in danger. However, our brains sometimes think there is danger when there is none.

Why do people feel anxious?

You might have heard people describe anxiety as worry, uncertainty, concern, fear, or stress. These are all different words for anxiety.

Some causes of anxiety may include:

    • Going certain places, like school or the doctor’s office.
    • Being in social settings, like making friends or going to parties.
    • Specific things like heights, bugs, or clowns.

People might feel nervous when they are around these things

Signs of anxiety

    • Anxiety affects how people think, feel, or behave and can make our bodies feel differently.
    • Some people might feel sick to their stomach, sweaty, have a hard time breathing, or trouble thinking clearly.
    • Anxiety causes people to “Fight, Flight or Freeze.”
    • Some people “fight” when they are anxious. This means they may argue, becoming angry, yell, or becoming physically aggressive.
    • Some people experience feelings that make them want to take “flight,” or that they have to run away or get out of the situation immediately.
    • Other people “freeze” when they are anxious. This may make them feel like they can’t talk, feel stuck in their body, have trouble remembering what happened, or feel cold.
    • Other signs of anxiety for people with autism may include an increase in self-stimulatory behaviors, asking repetitive questions, having a harder time communicating, or pacing.

What is next?

If you feel like your anxiety is severe or causing problems in your everyday life, there are
different ways to help.

    • Therapists can help teach how to recognize the signs of anxiety and different coping strategies.
    • Doctors can prescribe medications when anxiety impacts everyday life.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety is common for individuals with autism and can look very different depending on the person and the situation.

Asking repetitive questions or being preoccupied about one subject

The person may ask questions over and over. These questions might not be related to the current situation. The questions may or not make sense to the listener. This person is checking to make sure things have not changed.

Attempting to elope or wander away

The person may go to a place that feels more comfortable. The person may try to get away from a person, place or situation that is uncomfortable

Increase in stimming behaviors

Stimming” (self-stimulating) behaviors are things the person does to try and change the way they feel. Some of the common stimming behaviors in autism are rocking back-and-forth, spinning in circles and flapping their hands. If a person is doing these behaviors more than usual, it might be a sign that they are anxious.

Decreased abilities

The person might have a harder time talking or telling people how they feel. The person might have a harder time doing things they already learned how to do.

Increase in self-injurious behavior

The person might pull on their hair or eyelashes. The person might scratch himself/herself until they bleed. The person might bang their head against hard surfaces. The person might cut or burn himself/herself on purpose.

Increased irritability

The person might refuse to do things or go places they used to enjoy. Even when the person does their favorite activity, they don’t appear to enjoy it as much as they used to. The person might try to spend more time away from other people.

Differences Between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Autism

There are many symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and autism that are similar. It can be hard to know if symptoms are due to one diagnosis or the other, or if a person has both.

What is OCD?

Obsessions are thoughts that are hard to ignore or make go away. These thoughts are usually fears like:

    • Getting sick and dying from germs
    • That you have hurt someone
    • A need to do things or feel “just right”

There are different types of obsessions that people with OCD can have. In order to get rid of these “obsessions,” people do certain behaviors over and over. These are called “compulsions.” Common compulsions include:

    • Excessive washing or cleaning
    • Checking things over and over
    • Repeating actions or phrases until it feels “just right”


Symptoms of Autism Similar to OCD

Obsessions and Perseverations

Many people with autism have unique interests and it may seem like they are “obsessed” with those topics. Unlike obsessive thoughts in OCD, these interests aren’t upsetting to the person or make them anxious. Often these interests are considered hobbies. Obsessions in OCD are not things people like a lot, they are intrusive, reoccurring thoughts that are scary, upsetting and cause anxiety.

Repetitive Behavior

For people with autism, repetitive behaviors are often a way to help manage overwhelming situations. Their behaviors may help them calm down, relax or feel good. For people with OCD, the repetitive behaviors to decrease anxiety based on their obsessive thoughts. These behaviors often make the person feel bad, and only decrease their anxiety for a little bit.


Some people with autism are also diagnosed with OCD. This means they show obessive and compulsive behaviors that cause problems and impairs their everyday life. They also have to be more or in addition to the person’s typical symptoms of autism. If you think a person with autism may also have OCD, it should be discussed with the individual’s doctor.

Panic Attacks

What do panic attacks look and feel like?

The sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety may mean someone is having a panic attack. During a panic attack, they may feel like they are losing control or that danger is near, even if there is none.

During a panic attack, people may feel very anxious or have feelings that make them think they’re dying. These may include a fast heartbeat, sweating, shaking, inability to catch breath, nausea, chest pain and dizziness.

Panic attacks usually only last a few minutes but can be scary. The person may think about panic attacks and worry about having another one. They may avoid people, places or things due to fear of triggering another attack.

What can I do to help people who experience panic attacks?

Panic attacks can be treated by therapy and/or medication. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is commonly used to help people think differently and practice managing their reactions. Medications may also be part of treatment.

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Other downloads

Name Description Type File
What is Anxiety? This resource provides basic information about anxiety. pdf Download file: What is Anxiety?
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety This resource provides information to help you recognize signs and symptoms of anxiety for individuals who have autism. pdf Download file: Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
Panic Attacks This resource provides information about what a panic attack looks and feels like and what you can do to help people who experience them. pdf Download file: Panic Attacks
Differences Between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Autism This resource will review some of the differences between these diagnoses. pdf Download file: Differences Between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Autism

This information was developed by the Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT). For more information, please contact ASERT at 877-231-4244 or info@PAautism.org. ASERT is funded by the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, PA Department of Human Services.