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Anxiety Disorders and Children with Special Needs

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are not exclusively for adult. In fact, given a prevalence of 36%, children and adolescents with special educational needs are found to be more likely to experience mental health disorders as compared to those without a special need condition.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a common experience for everyone, including children and teenagers. As a normal part of our adaptation to stress, the feeling of anxiousness undeniably creates unpleasant physical and emotional experiences such as feeling panicky, fears, worries, stomach discomfort, difficulty breathing and sweating. This feeling however, is concerning when the unpleasant symptoms lasted for a long period with increased intensity over time. Children who suffered from intense anxiety may started to show changes in behaviors like reluctant to go to school, meltdowns, irregular eating and sleeping habit that interfere with their daily functioning.

Anxiety issues are often overlooked in children or teenagers with greater support needs. They may have lack of insights into their feelings and struggle to express these feelings verbally. Hence, these feelings are often manifested in their behavior to which it often mistakenly perceived as challenging. It is also worth stating that children with special needs are more likely to express their uncomfortable physical sensations instead of sharing to adults about their emotional state.

Common Types of Childhood Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorders is differ from developmentally normative fear of anxiety in terms of their persistency (typically lasting for at least 6 months), excessiveness (intense fear or worries) and behavior changes (e.g., actively avoid anxiety-inducing objects/places). Some of the common forms of children anxiety disorders are are including:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder

  • Selective Mutism

  • Specific Phobias

  • Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobias)

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

How do I know if my child is struggling with anxiety issues/disorders?

Children or teenagers with special needs are often required more support to express their anxiety state. Below are some of the common signs and symptoms when a child is experiencing anxiety:

Common Emotional/Behavioral Changes

  • Extreme fears towards certain objects or situations

  • Avoiding situations or people

  • Social withdrawal

  • Constant crying

  • Clingy or over demanding

  • Repetitive behaviours (e.g., hand washing, checking)

  • Aggressive or disrupting behaviours

  • Self-harming behaviours

  • Emotionally meltdown when being separated from caregivers (e.g., crying, shouting)

Common Physical Complaints

  • Feeling hot

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Hot/cold sweats

  • Numbness

  • Dry mouth

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Stomach-ache

  • Nausea or feeling of vomiting

  • Muscle pains

  • Difficulty sleeping

It is important for a parent or caregiver to always communicate with their child’s teachers, close friends or other relatives or caregivers to see if they have noticed changes in your child’s behaviors. If you are concerned with your child’s mental health, consult your child’s pediatrician.

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