Fact sheet on adults with Asperger's syndrome and managing panic attacks and anxiety


Adults on the autism spectrum may be prone to anxiety or distress, which in extreme situations could lead to panic attacks. Panic attacks are a terrifying experience where the body reacts as if it is in immense danger, in a situation where most people would not be afraid.

People of all ages can experience them, not only those with autism or Asperger's syndrome. A small number of these people will go on to develop panic disorder, whereby panic attacks are intense and occur frequently. If left untreated, panic disorder can be a debilitating condition, severely restricting the quality of life of the sufferer.

Panic attacks can occur at any time, repeatedly and without warning. Mostly they last for a few minutes, but on occasion may last for an hour or more. In between attacks, the sufferer often feels intense anxiety, worrying when and where the next one will strike. Panic attacks are accompanied by the unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety including heart palpitations, hyperventilation, muscle pain, dizziness and sweating, along with the fear that the attack will lead to death or a total loss of control.


Panic attacks and adrenaline

People suffering panic attacks should understand that the physical symptoms they experience with an attack are just extreme versions of normal bodily responses to danger. Adrenaline being released into the blood stream causes the heart to beat faster and the breathing rate to increase in order to supply major muscles with more oxygen. Blood is diverted away from non-essential areas including the stomach, brain and hands (resulting in digestive problems, dizziness and tingling or numbness in the hands). Pupils dilate for more acute vision and this can cause difficulty with bright lights or vision distortion. Sometimes it may appear that the walls are folding in, or in extreme cases, inanimate objects may appear to move.

During an attack the sufferer can become convinced that the symptoms are caused by a major health problem such as a heart attack or brain tumor, or that they are going crazy. This fear causes more adrenaline to be released. Thus a worsening cycle can be generated.

Panic attacks can be accompanied by other conditions such as depression, or they can give rise to the development of phobias. If a person has a panic attack in the supermarket or while in an elevator and then associates panic attacks with these activities, he or she may start avoiding them. Some people’s lives become very restricted and they avoid normal, everyday activities such as shopping, driving or even leaving the house, or they will only do them when accompanied by their partner or other trusted friend.


Treatments for panic attacks

There are a number of treatments for panic attacks with research showing cognitive behavioral therapy to be best practice. Some people choose to combine a number of treatment options.


Cognitive behavioral therapy

CBT is very effective. It teaches those with panic attacks how to identify their anxiety and how to change anxiety generating thoughts. The underlying belief with CBT is that it is not so much events that are a cause of anxiety but what we think about them.



Some of the anti-anxiety drugs are very potent and some produce severe side effects in some people. While medication can give short term relief to the symptoms it is important that other strategies are used as well, including counseling and learning more about the condition.


Complementary therapies

Some individuals report that the use of herbs, vitamins and homeopathy can be effective when either used alone or in conjunction with other treatments, although there is usually the underlying issue of whether they have proved to be evidence-based treatments or not.


Diet and exercise

Physical fitness and a good balanced diet are essential for emotional well being. Many people find that doing something physical helps reduced the “keyed up” feelings often associated with anxiety. For some people, high caffeine foods such as coffee and chocolate, can act as a trigger to panic attacks, probably because caffeine can cause bodily changes such as an increase in heart rate which can be misinterpreted as the start of a panic attack or a heart condition; the fear this causes can then trigger a real panic attack.


Relaxation techniques/meditation

These can be useful to reduce stress or to help you cope during an attack. There are numerous books and tapes which can help you learn these techniques. Some of these are included in the Handling Stress fact sheet.


Don't Fight Panic!

When experiencing a panic attack remember the following:
It does not matter if you feel frightened, unreal or unsteady as these feelings are just an exaggeration of normal bodily reactions. The feelings are unpleasant and frightening, but not dangerous.

Face the symptoms, Don't run from them. Don't add to your panic with scary thoughts about what is happening or where it might lead. Allow time to pass and for the fear to fade away.

Use one or all of the following positive statements:

• “This feeling isn't comfortable or pleasant, but I can accept it”
• “I can be anxious and still deal with the situation”
• “I’ll just let my body do its thing. This will pass”
• “This anxiety won’t hurt me, even if it doesn't feel good”.


Click here to read the fact sheet on handling stress for adults on the autism spectrum.
Click here for an interview with a specialist on stress and the autism spectrum.


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Adults on the autism spectrum may be prone to anxiety or distress, which in severe cases, may lead to the onset of panic attacks.