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Anxiety and neurodivergent folk – sensory sensitivities, unpredictability and social interactions

I thought I’d do a simple blog post here to explain how anxiety can affect neurodivergent folk.

The thing that just about all ‘ND’ folk have in common, no matter what their actual ND identity or diagnosis, is a sensitive autonomic nervous system.

We know that many autistic folk experience anxiety, with one study proposing the figure is as much as 94%.

The intense world theory, which many ND individuals align with, proposes that autistic people have hyper-functioning neural microcircuits.

There are quite a few reasons why ND folk may experience more anxiety than the rest of the population -

1. Sensory sensitivity – depending on the ND identity or diagnosis, sensory sensitivities are common for ND folk, including proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body); and interoception (the sense of the internal state of the body; even aspects like hunger etc). Overwhelming external sensory sensations can lead to sensory overload, which can trigger anxiety.

2. ND individuals may find it harder to shift attention (transition) – the resulting ‘inertia’ can provoke anxiety.

3. Socio-communicative differences in how we communicate with others can make us feel anxious. Social anxiety is a good example of this. Autism is considered to have socio-communicative differences at its core, hence autistic folk are more prone to not only social anxiety, but the end result of an exhausted or depleted social nervous system. (Language processing likely also plays a part here).

4. Minority stress affects marginalised groups in many ways – the term minority stress encompasses any stressful situation occurring due to one’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, neurotype (e.g. neurodivergence) or gender identity.

5. Being marginalised and under-employed can also affect a person’s anxiety-load.

In children, it is the first three aspects that are most influential for their anxiety presentations.

So in any given time period, if an ND person has experienced excessive sensory sensitivity, unpredictability in the overall experience, and social interaction of any kind, it is possible their anxiety load is high.

This isn’t a reflection on where they are or who they’re with. It is the impact on their nervous system from the environment. This is really key to understand! A visit with a beloved family member or a friendship meet-up can be anxiety-inducing, as it is just biology; it isn’t personal.

We all have a metaphorical receptacle – let’s say an emotional energy bucket – that fills up with stresses, stressors, triggers and the like. We let the contents out via regulation, sleep, self-care, time with ‘safe’ people etc. Think of the ‘letting the contents out’ as a tap at the base of the bucket. If there’s no outlet, then the bucket over flows. And there you have your meltdowns, social exhaustion, propensity for burnout etc.

For folk that are extremely hyper sensitive to anxiety, their buckets get full very quickly. So, for ND individuals, their caregivers, therapists, friends and family ideally need to respect their boundaries around limiting anything that involves any kind of sensory sensitivity, unpredictability in the overall experience, as well as social interactions of any kind. (And the person has to get better at enforcing said personal boundaries!)

For a child whose bucket is quite full due to a lack of coping skills that week, a simple visit to play with friends at a park may be ‘too much’, as it includes sensory sensitivity (e.g. ice cream van chimes; traffic noise; a hot car journey to the venue; high pitched shrieks and chattering etc); unpredictability in the overall experience (no definite structure to the day; maybe spontaneity over who is there and what activity is played); as well as social interactions (every single conversation with every single person.)

Hence, whilst there are many therapeutic interventions around anxiety, including Hypno-CBT, which I practice, a great start for anyone that's ND or in fact highly sensitive (HSP) is to get on top of one’s own ‘energy accounting’, and put in some healthy boundaries around sensory sensitivity, unpredictability and social interactions. (Even a therapy session with an experienced therapist, whilst regulating the client through ‘safe connection’, will use energy units up in the course of the therapy session itself. Online/telehealth therapy is often preferred by ND folks, because it uses up less energy units, and adaptions can be made, e.g. working with the screen off.)

Do contact Kathy with any queries or if you’d like a free 15m discovery call to discuss your needs around anxiety -


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